GRAND RAPIDS — It's summer but many area baseball diamonds are quiet and empty. The pandemic has changed, if not canceled, the entire season for a lot of kids.
However, work is already being done to make the game safer and healthier for kids come fall.
You may not be able to see them under their masks, but those smiles are there and they're enormous. These are the kids of the West Michigan Miracle League.
"The West Michigan Miracle League is a special baseball league for kids with disabilities, either cognitive or physical limitations," explained commissioner Tony Comden. "We make sure that all kids have the chance to play baseball, regardless of their skills and abilities."
And while their abilities won't keep them from enjoying the sport they love, the pandemic almost did, cancelling the spring season.
"A number of our kids have underlying health conditions that make them more susceptible to serious illness if they were to get COVID-19, so we have to take some extra precautions," Comden explained.
With outdoor exercise now allowed, WMML is holding practices to get the kids outside in limited numbers. It is a lot different from a typical Saturday.
"A normal Saturday for us is having about 90 or 100 kids out here playing baseball. We play two-inning games. We played t-ball league rules so every kid bats, every kid gets on base and scores are run. It's non-competitive," Comden said.
Josh VanBuskirk can't wait to hear the crack of a baseball bat again. As President of the Grandville Little League, he was forced to cancel their spring season as well. And when fall ball starts up in August, things will also look a bit different.
"We're going to make sure all of our surfaces get disinfected," VanBuskirk explained. "We're going to separate players on the bench to behind the fence so they're spread out more. Parents will have designated zones that they can sit in that are separated, and then we'll be doing temperature checks on all players and coaches coming on the field."
Grandville Little League sees some 1,500 kids come through it's program every spring and fall. But, come August, Van Buskirk expects to see about 300 return to the field. Until then, he advised parents to keep their kids on a conditioning schedule.
"Just a lot of home drills, getting with your kids in the backyard, YouTube's wonderful resource. Throwing, hitting and pitching," VanBurkirk explained.
When fall ball starts back up with the WMML, they'll be enhancing the health and safety process, such as having fewer kids on a team, more time in between games to clear the field, and every child brings his or her own gear instead of sharing helmets and bats. There will even be health screenings for volunteers.
"I think what this has taught us amongst a lot of other things is don't take for granted the things that you can always otherwise do," Comden said.
"I think we were getting a little complacent with just assuming that every Saturday we could come out and play baseball and we couldn't do that and so this is going to give us all, I hope, a renewed sense of appreciation for things as normal as a baseball game."