When the sports world stood still: baseball coaches, players wait with season in limbo

The baseball field at Owens Park on Williamstown High School’s campus sat empty under a beautiful, sunny spring sky last Thursday. It’s not alone. As schools and communities continue to take precautions to fight off the spread of the coronavirus epidemic, coaches are hopeful the games will return at some point this spring. (RYAN LAWRENCE/South Jersey Sports Weekly)

On the day before baseball’s annual spring holiday, Major League Baseball’s opening day, Rob Christ sat in his home perched in front of a computer screen. 

If he looked to his left or right, he saw the same thing. His wife was on a computer. All three of his kids, students at Lenape High School, were working on laptops.

Christ, the longtime head baseball coach of an Eastern team that advanced to the Group 4 state championship game last spring, looked out at the overcast, gray, drizzly weather and joked to his wife that it reminded him of most high school opening days.

“I’d rather be inside on a day like this,” Christ said, before catching himself. “Any day on the baseball field is better than one off of it.”

Christ’s words echo those of just about everyone in the baseball community, be it high school, college or pro, and in the sports world at large. Two weeks after the NBA postponed the remainder of its season due to the coronavirus pandemic, the first domino to fall in temporarily collapsing sports as we know it across America, local baseball coaches face the reality that their spring seasons could be in jeopardy.

“I tend to be an optimist and think that things will work themselves out, whether we get back or we start a season at the beginning of May and this all clears out sooner rather than later,” Christ said. “But to be honest with you, right now the earliest we’re scheduled to go back is April 20,” he added, while acknowledging that teams would need at least a week to get back into baseball shape.

“Two weeks from April 20, we’re already into the first week of May,’ Christ said. “How many weeks could you have that constitute a season? And then even if it’s three weeks, you’re into Memorial Day and you have the playoffs and so on. Obviously every single day (that passes) diminishes the possibility.”

Eastern celebrates with the trophy following the school’s 7-2 win over Cherry Hill East in the South Jersey Group 4 championship game on May 31. (RYAN LAWRENCE/South Jersey Sports Weekly)

Although he had to make the difficult phone call to tell his players that their annual Florida trip, and a chance to play nationally ranked IMG Academy, had been canceled, Christ tries to stay hopeful. Summer travel teams could complicate things, but the coach has mentioned that high school baseball in Iowa takes place over the summer. 

Or perhaps the NJSIAA and the five major leagues in South Jersey — the Colonial, Olympic, Tri-County and Cape Atlantic conferences and the Burlington County Scholastic League — could be a little creative and follow the suggestion of the popular South Jersey baseball Twitter account  @TWIBaseballNJ to field a March Madness-style, 64-team tournament in lieu of an abbreviated season, with doubleheaders over three consecutive weekends. That, of course, assumes schools will reopen and players will be back on the field at some point in early May.

Perhaps the only thing more depressing than no baseball on opening day is the uncertainty of its return in 2020. 

“Right now, I’m going stir crazy,” Delran second-year coach Jim Goodwin said. 

The Bears had beefed up their schedule this season in a scrimmage with Gloucester Catholic and regular season games against Seneca, Paul VI and Eastern, among others, in order to prepare themselves for a state tournament that now hangs in the balance. And then there are the high school juniors and seniors who are losing opportunities to impress colleges and pro scouts, like Delran senior R.J. Moten.

Delran senior R.J. Moten saw his stock rising as a prospect in the MLB Draft, but with games postponed indefinitely, he is losing out on the chance to impress more pro scouts this spring. (RYAN LAWRENCE/South Jersey Sports Weekly)

“He was starting to get some real traction on the draft board,” Goodwin said of Moten, who already has a scholarship lined up to play both baseball and football at Michigan.

Moten is a high profile prospect that has already worked out for at least a half dozen major league scouts in February sessions. What about the less heralded players who want to compete for college scholarships?

For coaches, the only thing to do is preach positivity to players and help them stay prepared mentally, if not physically. The NJSIAA restricted all practices while schools are closed; coaches can only contact players through phone or email and players can only work out on their own and not together, to limit a potential spread of the coronavirus.

“Stay safe, don’t touch anyone,” Timber Creek coach Jon Kates said. “The other thing is a lot of things float around and kids believe it. So it’s reminding them that the season isn’t canceled and anything you hear is untrue, because no one knows anything right now. 

“So you’re really just keeping them where they are mentally,” he added. “I liked where we were in getting prepared for the season and I want them to stay that way and keep hope alive that we’re going to play.”

And until the popping of mitts brings the soundtrack of spring back to South Jersey diamonds, players can only try to be creative in staying sharp.

“Put a net up in your backyard, tie a blanket to some trees and hit off of a tee into the blanket,” Goodwin suggested. “Little things like that. Clear out the garage, take swings in there …

“It’s crazy. I never thought I’d see anything like this. We’re two weeks into this quarantine and it still doesn’t feel real.”

Timber Creek and Cherry Hill East square off in an Olympic Conference game in Sicklerville last spring. (RYAN LAWRENCE/South Jersey Sports Weekly)

The reality has set in for a few weeks now. Schools and athletic fields across South Jersey and beyond are empty.

Eventually life and baseball will return, but until then, we all sit on the sidelines and wait.

“It really is tragic in a lot of ways,” Christ said. “But I always say that through adversity comes positives. I firmly believe that, to a man, all of us will be better for it in some way, whether it’s the realization of how important our family is or not taking for granted what it is we have each and every day. We may not reap the fruits initially, but I think all of us will be better for it in some way, probably in ways we don’t even realize.”