They are two words most baseball players, coaches, volunteers, fans and families haven’t heard in-person in a long time.
Relegated to the socially-distanced dugout over the last 15 months because of the COVID-19 pandemic, practices were finally able to resume again with phase one of the Alberta government’s re-opening plan enacted at the end of May.
Excitement has been building since it was announced that phase two would begin on June 10, meaning games could finally be played.
“It was really nice to hear that we had the chance to play baseball this year,” Baseball Alberta programs coordinator Ryan Bird told Alberta Dugout Stories: The Podcast. “In the office, we were prepping to have a season and figure out what a regular season would look like. It’s something we didn’t have last year.”
Everyone involved in the sport has to deal with a few curveballs and changeups along the way, and Bird expects that they may have to do the same thing this summer as the province moves towards a full re-opening.
“The good news and smiles were followed by a little bit of anxiety with making sure that we had all of the pieces set on all fronts to make the season go,” Bird laughed. “Schedules, umpires, registration, insurance, all of those things start to bubble up because people want to know it a lot quicker.”
AN ALL-CANADIAN WCBL SUMMER
The Alberta government’s announcement came as welcome news for the Western Canadian Baseball League (WCBL), as well.
Back in March, the league announced it would be going ahead with an All-Canadian summer, as questions around border restrictions for incoming American players continued to linger.
The changing face of the pandemic, along with interprovincial travel being discouraged, meant the league’s Saskatchewan teams were going to bow out for the 2021 season so they could focus on 2022.
When the dust settled in Alberta, the WCBL announced at the end of May that they would forge ahead with a summer season featuring five teams: Edmonton Prospects, Lethbridge Bulls, Okotoks Dawgs (x2) and the expansion Sylvan Lake Gulls.
Opening Day is set for June 18.
“We’re just excited to get back on the field and provide a great summer of baseball for our talented Canadian players,” president Kevin Kvame said. “We’re also excited for our fans, who we applaud for standing by us as we’ve been planning this season.”
Earlier this week, the WCBL unveiled its full schedule, which includes playoffs in August.
FANS IN THE STANDS
As part of the re-opening plans, fans will have an opportunity to check out some of the action, although space will be limited.
Kvame says the WCBL will make sure teams abide by capacity and social-distancing rules.
“While we’re starting the season with a limited number of fans, we’re hopeful to increase capacity as the season progresses,” he said. “We’ll be exercising diligence throughout the summer to adhere to all provincial guidelines as they change and are adopted.”
Protocols and seating arrangements are being announced by teams as Opening Day approaches.
Kvame is hopeful that enough people get the vaccine so that more restrictions will be lifted for marquee games like on Canada Day and the August long weekend.
Several other Alberta baseball leagues were planning for the potential of a season and were quick to announce their schedules as soon as phase two came into effect.
First pitch on the Foothills Major Baseball Association will be thrown at 8:30 am on June 13 with the Calgary Longhorns facing the Calgary Cardinals.
The Powerline Baseball League also has one game on the schedule for that day, with the Tofield Braves visiting the Camrose Roadrunners.
The Sunburst League will open up its summer on June 14 with a pair of games on the schedule, including the St. Albert Tigers taking on the Edmonton Cubs while the Sherwood Park Athletics battle the Red Deer Riggers.
It’s not all good news, however, when it comes to baseball in this province.
While young kids will be able to finally take part in games again, Little League Canada announced all national tournaments in baseball and softball would be cancelled.
There was some good news for this province after that decision was made, as both Calgary and Lethbridge were chosen as host sites for 2022 championships.
Several other tournaments usually scheduled around the province during the summer will suffer the same fate they did in 2020 because of the restrictions and unknowns surrounding large gatherings.
The debut of the new West Coast League team, the Edmonton Riverhawks, will also have to wait until 2022.
In mid-April, the league announced the five Canadian teams had withdrawn for the season because of the complications associated with COVID-19.
“This is disappointing but not surprising news,” Riverhawks managing director Dr. Randy Gregg said in a news release. “We’ve worked really hard to be ready to take to the field this June but the health and safety of our fans and the players must come first.”
With the excitement mounting for the sweet sounds of summer to return, there are a few pieces still missing for the leagues and their teams.
Some are hiring workers while others are hoping volunteers will help in bringing the usual amenities to the park.
For Baseball Alberta, Bird says the biggest gap he is having to deal with is finding enough umpires.
“Normally, the umpire group is the hardest group to fill in a regular year, so this isn’t new,” Bird said. “The good news is our associations have built back up their teams to similar numbers to what they had in 2019, which is fantastic.”
Even then, they did have some issues in finding last-minute replacements, so some games went with one official instead of two.
He admits it’s a tough sell, especially with the scrutiny that comes with being an official, but it’s an integral part of the game and he doesn’t want anyone to miss out on any games because of it.
Especially when we’ve gone so long without hearing one of those umpires shout those two game-starting words.