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Little League players to return to fields – with precautions

By Trey Williams

Not that he’s complaining, but Eric Carroll could’ve picked a better year to become Unicoi County Little League president.

The coronavirus pandemic forced the cancellation of the Little League World Series and the Southeast Regional, and for a while, it looked as though it might wipe out Little League baseball and softball in Unicoi County for 2020.

“This is my first year as president,” said Carroll, whose daughter Reagan played on the Unicoi County Little League 8-10-year-old softball team that won the state and finished runner-up in the Southeast Region last summer. “I coached a coach-pitch team last year and have been around Little League with my kids now – this is my third year. Of course, this is the year that everything goes the way that it’s gone.”

It appears that two months in a holding pattern will conclude with a happy landing. The Unicoi County Little League regular seasons, which were initially scheduled to conclude last week, are now expected to begin sometime in mid-June after practice begins on June 1.

“Before the shutdown we had already done tryouts and drafted our Majors teams,” Carroll said. “We drafted our coach-pitch teams right before they made the requirement of no more than 10 people (in groups). … We have all of our teams set.

“Our hope is to allow practices to begin June 1. That, of course, is pending approval from Tennessee District 5 and the Southeast Region with Little League. We’re making preparations as a league as we’re going to be able to start June 1. Little League recommends two weeks of practice, so our plan is to have two weeks of practice and then have our games scheduled after that. …

“Governor (Bill) Lee, when he signed executive order No. 38, that made things a little bit easier. It specifically called out non-contact sports and mentioned baseball and softball, and really said those are clear to begin.”

Opening Day was initially set for April 6. The regular season schedule is certain to be shortened.

“It will be an abbreviated schedule,” Carroll said. “It won’t be the 12- to 14-game schedule that you’ll normally see, but we’ll get in eight to 10 games, weather permitting.”

The sad turn of events will prevent some Little Leaguers from playing this season, though the total number of players should be around the usual 300 participants (for all leagues combined)

“We’re really late in the season,” Carroll said. “Very much later and we’re going to be getting into volleyball for the girls and football practice will start for the boys. It’s conflicts with vacations and other sports that are coming into play.”

Still, there’s a possibility for postseason tournaments, which could include a state tournament.

“It will be up to the individual states if they want to hold state tournaments and right down to the district level if districts want to try to have a district tournament,” Carroll said. “I guess that’s going to vary district by district on how many districts play. Maryville, several weeks ago, went ahead and canceled their season. I don’t want to speak for any other league, but I think there are several in our area that still want to have a season.”

Carroll is relieved to know that Little Leaguers won’t be denied a season.

“If you play your entire Little League career, you only get four years in the kid-pitch portion of Little League,” he said. “And if you lose one of those years you’ve lost 25 percent, and that’s something we don’t want for any of these, particularly the 12-year-olds. You don’t want them to lose their last year of Little League. So if there’s anything we can do and it’s safe and we’re given the appropriate approvals from our local and state officials, we want them to be able to have that season.”

It’ll be a memorable season, and social distancing will certainly have a hand, if not a handshake, in it being unforgettable

“Social distancing, obviously, that’s gonna be around for a while,” Carroll said. “That’s not going anywhere. We’ll have plans to keep the kids as separated as possible in the dugouts. We’ll social distance the umpire either further back behind the catcher or put them behind the pitcher’s mound. We’ve developed a new set of guidelines that will be given to the coaches, the parents, the umpires. … Fortunately, in baseball, when you look at the defensive positions, the kids are socially distanced already.

“There’s a lot of things that we have to do just a little bit differently. There’ll be no postgame handshakes. There’ll be no celebratory high-fives. Those are the kind of things we can’t do. We can tip the cap and cheer for each other.”

Hearing a ball hit a mitt or bat in 2020 will be especially gratifying for Carroll.

“I’ve got 15 board members that put in a lot of time in a normal season,” he said. “It’s been Plan A, Plan B, Plan C, Plan D – it’s been trying to make changes on a lot of what-ifs and just never knowing what’s coming. So those guys have really put in the time in trying to be creative and think of ways to try to allow these kids to have a season.

“If we can get something in where when they look back on it in 10 or 15 years, hopefully the virus is a distant memory but they’ll still have a memory of Little League in 2020.”