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‘Somebody Has to Be First.’ These Youth Baseball Teams Are Playing Ball This Weekend, Despite Experts’ Warnings

9 minute read

Rob Worstenholm’s decision to go forward with a youth baseball and softball tournament in the St. Louis area this weekend has split the local youth sports community into two camps: those who think he’s a saint for giving kids a chance to get back on the field, and others who say he’s putting the kids, and their families, at unnecessary risk.

“Some people want to elect me president,” says Worstenholm. “Others want me court-martialed.”

COVID-19 has effectively shut down American’s $19.2 billion youth sports market, inflicting a world of pain on team and tournament operators, equipment suppliers, and facility owners — not to mention local economies, who over the past decade have grown more reliant on large-scale travel tournaments to fill hotel rooms and inject city coffers with cash. While many families have surely enjoyed a break from the youth sports grind of daily practices and weekly sojourns to soccer and baseball fields and sweaty basketball gyms, at this point, many parents and kids are no doubt itching to get back to the games. Young athletes are growing desperate to impress recruiters for potential college scholarships, improve their skills, and just spend time with their friends playing ball.

But St. Louis, and Missouri more broadly, have by no means conquered the pandemic. The state reported its largest-ever daily increase in COVID-19 cases earlier this week, while more than 400 people in the St. Louis area have died of the virus. While new COVID-19 hospitalizations in the area are trending downward, some 600 people are still arriving in hospitals for treatment every day.

Although Missouri Governor Mike Parson lifted his statewide stay-at-home orders, St. Louis County remains under shelter-in-place laws until May 18. So Worstenholm’s company, GameTime Tournaments, will stage the games, for kids ages 9 through 14, in two neighboring counties without such restrictions. Still, some public health experts say it’s still too soon to bring back youth sports in the U.S.

“I can’t believe they’re talking about hosting a tournament with dozens of teams this weekend,” says Zachary Binney, an epidemiologist at Emory University in Atlanta. “Frankly, I think it’s unconscionable. This is like shifting from first gear straight to fifth.”

Worstenholm has instituted some novel social distancing measures for this weekend’s “Mother’s Day Classic” in an attempt to make things safer for participants. Only three kids are allowed in the dugout at a time; all other players will spread out six feet behind the dugout and down the lines. Catchers will have to crouch an additional two feet behind the batter. Fans will also have to remain six feet apart from each other; Worstenholm says he’s doubled his staff for this weekend to help enforce these measures.

Baseball isn’t really a contact sport, except when, for example, players slide into bases to avoid tags. To reduce the probabilities of such plays, baserunners won’t be able to steal a base until the pitcher releases the ball — without such a jump, a runner is less likely to take a chance. To avoid plays at the plate, runners on third base won’t be able to dash home on a wild pitch or passed ball (youth ballgames are a fountain of wild pitches and passed balls).

Furthermore, the umps will stand at least six feet behind the pitcher to call balls and strikes (instead of the catcher), and coaches won’t be able to storm onto the field to argue calls. Players can’t share equipment, balls will be sanitized every half-inning, and handshakes and fist bumps will be banned. Definitely no high-fives, either.

As well intentioned as these rules may be, they can’t eliminate unpredictable collisions between a shortstop and an outfielder on a shallow fly ball, or between a runner and a catcher on a play at the plate. And you don’t need a child psychology degree to realize that if some nine-year-old hits an inside-the-park grand slam, odds are his teammates will forget all those social distancing rules and group hug him at home plate.

“Kids do,” says Jon Solomon, editorial director of The Aspen Institute’s Sports and Society program, “what kids do.”

But if even Major League Baseball, which has the resources to pay for testing and other stringent safety measures, hasn’t returned to play, how can we in good conscience send our kids back on the field? While it was once thought that children were less likely to be directly affected by COVID-19, new signs are emerging that they may be more vulnerable than once believed. And children can be asymptomatic carriers that unknowingly spread the disease, as well — hence why schools are shut down across the country.

“One thing we’re being confronted with right now is, after all these stay-at-home orders and restrictions on activities, is this great desire to get back to normalcy, especially as we see other counties starting to open up and have sporting events,” says Jill Weatherhead, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the Baylor College of Medicine. “The concern here, however, is the virus not being under control, in combination with a public health infrastructure that’s not quite up to standard, could lead to secondary and tertiary waves on infection in the upcoming months if we don’t take the necessary precautions.”

Solomon, whose organization has published tools to help youth sports organizations decide when it’s safe to return to play, is also worried. “I don’t think the industry is ready,” he says. “It’s going to be the Wild West these next few months. There are a lot of well-intentioned people running these events in youth sports. But they’re not medical experts. They’re not public health experts. They’re not clean sanitation experts. Who’s ultimately accountable for this?”

While most youth sports organizations across the country are still hesitant to play ball, some other companies in Missouri, emboldened by the governor’s lifting of stay-at-home restrictions, are also holding baseball tournaments this weekend. Besides the GameTime event in St. Louis, a smaller “May Madness” baseball tournament will be held in Sikeston, in the southeast part of the state. Another event is being held in Nevada, a city 90 miles south of Kansas City. A tournament rep confirmed over the phone that the event would take place, but said he was not authorized to answer questions. He directed TIME to send an email to Champion Diamonds, the event host. No one returned our request for comment.

Missouri’s baseball parents have mixed feelings about these developments. Nick Herrin, president of the Adidas Athletics youth baseball club in St. Louis, said he polled his parents on returning to play. Between 60% to 70% of families overall wanted to wait, but around 80% of the families on his 11-and-under team, specifically, were ready to come back. So the Adidas A’s will send only that team to this weekend’s GameTime tournament. Rob Floyd, general manager of the St. Louis Bears Baseball Club, likewise polled the 200 families in his organization; 71% of them said they were ready to play, while 18% were not (11% didn’t respond). Floyd is fielding a 14-and-under team this weekend; his son plays on the squad.

“These kids have given up a lot,” says Floyd, who notes the cancellation of his son’s eighth grade graduation and trip. “Yes, we’re scared. We’re worried. But we feel like with the guidelines but in place, this is going to be as safe as it can possibly be.”

But is the chance of kids catching the infection, and potentially spreading it to older people more at risk of dying of COVID-19, worth the benefit of playing baseball before most other kids in the county? Playing on Mother’s Day may heighten this risk, given that families could be more likely to visit grandparents after the games. Can’t sports wait? If the novel coronavirus is more under control in, say, a month, kids can still have their fun and play this summer.

Floyd likens the upside of playing this weekend to a scene in The Shawshank Redemption, in which prisoners are seen drinking morning beers, their gift after one of their own, protagonist Andy Dufresne, helps a guard save money on his taxes. “We sat and drank with the sun on our shoulders,” says narrator “Red” Redding, played by Morgan Freeman, “and felt like free men.”

“We’re going to be able to feel normal again,” says Floyd. “That’s the benefit. Somebody has to be first. We just want to show everybody that baseball can be played as safely as possible. That’s how we looked at it.”

Floyd won’t punish any players who sit out this tournament. He acknowledges the severity of the virus and supports any family’s personal decision not to play.

Among those staying home is Chris Westmeyer, whose son plays on Floyd’s 14-and-under team, but won’t be joining the Bears this weekend. “We’ve taken all this time and effort to stay at home for weeks to control this outbreak,” Westmeyer says. “It seems silly to let my kid play a baseball game. Why take that one risk? It can all backfire with one stupid mistake.”

For his part, Worstenholm, the GameTime operator, insists he’s not moving forward with this weekend’s tournament lightly. “We all feel like the responsibility is on our shoulders,” he says. “We don’t want to mess it up.” Last year’s Mother’s Day event featured around 160 teams, according to Worstenholm. He says he could have had around 80 teams play this year to increase revenues, but he whittled down the list to around 50 to further prevent potential spread. “If this was about the money, I’d be sitting home,” says Worstenholm. “This is at best a break even situation for us. We did this because we know that kids want to play.”

At the outset of the week, Worstenholm said he was nervous. Now, he’s just fired up to play. Scientists, however, aren’t as enthused. Even if the GameTime tournament doesn’t spark further viral spread, they insist we shouldn’t confuse luck with success. “Outcome doesn’t excuse bad process,” says Binney, the Emory epidemiologist. “It’s like I’m shooting craps. One good roll doesn’t mean I’m going to keep rolling well. You’re still gambling every time you do something like this.”

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Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com