Summer returns with baseball

Chad Frey
When the Newton Rebels started practice this week, Jack Sigrist of Wichita State was among the players ready to get back to playing baseball this summer.

As the state, county and nation transition to a COVID-19 world, the boys of summer have returned, coming from as far away as Japan to exercise a rite of summer: playing baseball.

Practice for baseball teams for the Newton Rebels, and rec commission teams, began Monday.

And this year that is momentous, as COVID-19 has wiped out sports across the nation for months, including Major League Baseball.

Local teams are the first out of the gate with live sporting events.

“That is something that I am not taking lightly. I don’t think it is something the players quite understand yet,” said Brett Clark, coach of the Newton Rebels. “... This is the biggest summer in summer ball history, in my opinion.”

Machine pitch players in the Newton Recreation Commission — all 18 of them — were welcomed to practice on Monday, with some changes to how teams are run. Each player is issued a helmet to use for the season, and they are encouraged to observe social distancing while trying to practice and play the sport. American Legion teams started playing games this week as well.

The Rebels, a team made up of college players, open their home schedule with a game at 7 p.m. June 13 at Klein-Scott Field in Centennial Park.

There are no high-fives anymore. For older players, there are no sunflower seeds with shells in the dugout. Players supply their own bats and equipment, and there is no sharing.

“That will be interesting. I told the guys to come up with something the other day to celebrate,” Clark said.

The National Baseball Congress has issued a full set of rules designed to deal with COVID-19. It stipulates no water coolers in dugouts — players must use a designated water bottle and no sharing.

The Rebels also faced an annual challenge that was much more intensified this season — finding a place for players to stay. Host families were difficult to find in the runup to the season.

”This is the biggest roster I have had. I am excited. We are letting these kids do what they want to do and love to do,“ Clark said.

And this was, by all accounts, the most fluid offseason the Rebels have ever gone through. It’s not abnormal for teams to come and go in summer college baseball leagues, but this offseason, when a team dropped out, the league created its own team. Then another team dropped out just last week when the El Dorado Broncos announced they would not play this season.

And there were entire leagues that chose to forgo the summer season.

“The biggest challenge was at first, coaches not knowing where players were going. COVID-19 hit, and coaches decided they needed to get guys playing in the summer,” Clark said. "... The hardest was deciding how many players to take and who to take.“

The schedule is still being adjusted, but opening night at Klein-Scott Field is still on with a scrimmage June 13 and the league opener June 15 against Hutchinson.

Social distancing guidelines, and any local crowd size guidelines in effect on those days, will affect not only the players in the dugouts but also fans in the stands.

Still, baseball is beginning. The Newton American Legion teams have started their competition schedule, as have club and travel teams. Rec teams will have one more week of practice, then games begin.

“It is the best thing for an athlete right now to be playing baseball,” Clark said. “They have not played in three months.”

Zach Bravo, a National Baseball Congress All American and former draft pick of Major League Baseball, will return to the Newton Rebels this summer. The team will open play June 13.