Marion baseball coach Steve Fish formed a routine during 21 seasons with the Indians and almost four decades of coaching overall.
When the Hall of Fame skipper reaches the ballpark, his first stop is the dugout — the sanctuary of sorts for staff and players as they prepare for practice or games.
Not this season. The dugouts are off limits in an attempt to avoid crowding and promote social distancing to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
“In a weird way, that was kind of hard,” said Fish, who has 715 career victories. “So, when you’re dealing with 20-some varsity kids you have to spread them down the line and tell them to spread out their bags.”
Baseball players and coaches have adapted and adjusted well to the new safety guidelines and procedures created in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Programs across the state have begun their second week of practice, preparing for the start of competition Monday.
“I thought it went well,” North Linn Coach Travis Griffith said. “It’s really teaching me, coaching staff and the kids of what our normal is now in a way and what is acceptable and what’s not.”
Iowa High School Athletic Association Assistant Director Todd Tharp said he was not aware of any programs or players who have tested positive for COVID-19 or have had to be quarantined. The local Department of Health would handle those cases and determine how to proceed.
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“It’s been fairly quiet,” Tharp said. “Hopefully, that means we’ve asked about as many questions as we can and have answered them. They’re just getting ready to play.”
Griffith and Fish haven’t had any players sent home due to symptoms or possible coronavirus exposure, which is consistent with most of the Cedar Rapids metro and Iowa City programs.
“We have had one kid miss a practice, so far, and that was because of migraines,” Griffith said. “He didn’t have a temperature at all. It was nothing coronavirus related.”
Many coaches and players are rooted in tradition and set in their ways. Constant reminders are needed for everyone involved. The emphasis remained on cleaning hands during breaks and staying 6 feet apart. Terms for sterilizing and spacing could join “rock and fire” and “grip it and rip it” in baseball vernacular.
“I think I’ve said ‘sanitize’ and ‘stay apart’ more than anything else, even baseball stuff,” Fish said. “We’re constantly trying to remind them to sanitize after drills. That part was different.”
Some teams split squads up to limit the number of players on the field at one time. Others have added more stations, having players sanitize their hands each rotation. Fish said this situation is the biggest change he’s ever experienced during his career, but the foundation of teaching the game is the same.
“Baseball was still baseball,” Fish said about the first week of practice. “We were able to work on things that we normally would have worked on. It really didn’t impact the baseball instruction other than trying to sanitize and stay apart.”
The majority of the responsibility falls on the coaches’ shoulders. They had to record temperatures and inquire about possible symptoms. They also had to factor in additional time for sanitizing during breaks. Coaches also have to take time after practice to sterilize shared equipment.
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“It’s not too bad,” Griffith said. “When the kids get done raking, they put bats up against the fence by our shed and then the rakes on the other side of the fence. They don’t put stuff away. I’ll clean it and put it away … I’ll come out and do it beforehand the next day.”
Tharp confirmed there have been some changes. In addition to the ban on concessions, team buffet meals aren’t allowed, but prepackaged meals are permitted. Also, pitchers will be permitted to have a wet towel with them, providing an alternative to licking their fingers between pitches for better grip.
Four schools won’t field baseball teams, including Meskwaki, Belmond-Klemme and Eagle Grove. Players from those four programs will be able to play for any other program with a team, if that school will accept them.
“We have kids who may be playing baseball somewhere else for the summer and then being able to return back to their school, so they’re kind of being three-month free agents for the most part,” Tharp said. “Schools have to make the decision do they want a kid from Belmond-Klemme for two or three months to play baseball and then go back to Belmond-Klemme? Are parents going to be upset if that kid is going to take someone’s spot? They have some tough decisions to make in that aspect.”
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