July Madness: Is proposed NJ prep summer baseball tourney feasible?

Baseball coaches and players across the state are preparing for a massive tournament next month. But is it logistically possible? Is it a good idea?

Eastern Regional’s Sam Portnoy would have been one of the most talented seniors on the field this spring in South Jersey. (RYAN LAWRENCE/South Jersey Sports Weekly)

Three months ago, one of the most exciting events on the sports calendar became the first casualty of the coronavirus pandemic when the NCAA tournament was officially called off three days before brackets were set to be unveiled.

March Madness became March Sadness and sports have remained sidelined. On the high school level, seasons were officially shut down in May.

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So when a news story circulated last week that a “Last Dance” high school baseball tournament in July was in the works, a glimmer of hope shined through the darkness. 

Could prep baseball’s lost spring be salvaged in a one month-long, North vs. South tournament summer event?

The initial, emotional response from any baseball-obsessed player, parent, coach or fan would be a resounding yes. With restrictions loosening amid the pandemic, let’s give the Class of 2020 a much-needed going-away party, with games set to begin in pool play on July 7, according to NJ.com, single-elimination rounds of 16 and 8 scheduled for the third weekend of July, a final four beginning on July 21 and a North vs. South title game two days later. 

But the logical, reasoned response, after letting it simmer for a while as you work through the logistics of game play with a global pandemic still going on? 

“Totally, totally irresponsible … insane … foolhardy … a recipe for injury,” were among the responses from one anonymous South Jersey baseball coach (and you can understand his decision to be anonymous given the backlash he’d surely get from parents).

While any kind of baseball would feel like a breath of fresh air (pun intended) during a spring when the sport has been sorely missed, it’s fair to weigh the positives and negatives of such an event.

Does the idea itself sound fun? Surely. Are high school seniors deserving of game time in 2020? Of course, but that goes for any spring sport.

Cherry Hill West shortstop Danny Berckman warms up in between innings during a game last spring. Berckman would have been a part of a strong senior core for the Lions in 2020. (RYAN LAWRENCE/South Jersey Sports Weekly)

With Major League Baseball negotiating to return in July, and with the governor lifting stay-at-home orders last week in addition to increasing the capacity of outdoor gatherings to 100 people, it’s understandable for people to get excited with the feasibility of a baseball tournament, even if, by rule, it can’t be associated with area high schools (players wouldn’t be able to wear their school uniforms, for instance).

Still, there is optimism.

“I’d probably tell you we’re at 80 percent right now,” longtime Highland Regional High School coach D.J. Gore said of the tournament’s likelihood last week. “I think the biggest things it’s going to come down to is field availability and continuing to follow these (state) guidelines.

“I mean, I think it’s going to look a lot different. You’re going to have umpires either behind the pitchers or off to the side, I don’t know how that’s going to work. Are we going to have to wear masks coaching? There are a lot of unknowns, but I’m all for something positive right now.”

Everyone is. Even the coaches that are hesitant about it (more than one wasn’t interested in commenting on the proposed tournament for this story) would like to look forward to something positive. 

But, and you knew the but was coming, you can’t ignore the risks. 

And when you do begin to take a blank piece of paper and list the positives on one side and the negatives on the other, if you’re being realistic, you’re going to use a lot more ink on the negatives.

Can you be sure all players and coaches have been following guidelines for the last three months? Have they all been wearing masks while out in public since the beginning of May, for instance? 

What happens next month when any family member of a coach or player gets sick? Is that team booted from the tournament? What about the team they played in the previous game? 

Would anyone want to play against a team from pandemic hot zone Bergen County?

Shawnee’s Dom Frigiola, a member of the Renegades Diamond Classic championship team in 2019, was among the many players who missed on on his senior season in 2020. (RYAN LAWRENCE/South Jersey Sports Weekly)

And then there is the non-pandemic health to consider. 

Major League Baseball and the MLBPA (Players Association) have been trying to hammer out a deal for a season that would begin in July. But their math also incorporates at least a three-week Spring Training Part II, when players can properly prepare (particularly for pitchers to work up stamina). Sure, high school baseball isn’t the same. But pitchers still can’t go from 0-to-60 (a pitch count, that is) in the span of a week or two; there’s a reason March exists in the high school baseball season.

There are also some proposed rules floating around that make you wonder if people have any idea what baseball would have to look like in order to be allowed amid a pandemic. 

Here are three of these rules being sent to coaches:

  • All base runners may take ordinary leads … but stealing is NOT ALLOWED. A line will be drawn to determine allowable leads. 
  • The ball should be rotated out as frequently as it can or should be disinfected in between innings.
  • A catcher should be kept six feet from the batter. If this is not possible, a catcher should not be used.

No catcher, huh? 

So the pitcher is going to rear back and throw and if the hitter takes, the ball is going to clank off the backstop, and somewhere, the umpire is going to have to determine if it’s a strike or a ball. Sounds … interesting.

While the intentions seem to be in the right place, this feels a little rushed and forced at best and chaotic at worst. But, if it moves forward, good luck and Godspeed.

Bishop Eustace’s Charlie Sanzio (left) is greeted by his teammates after striking out two in a scoreless fifth inning to end the Crusaders’ 2019 season opener. Sanzio, like all high school seniors, didn’t get the opportunity to play in 2020. (RYAN LAWRENCE/South Jersey Sports Weekly)
Ryan is a veteran journalist of 20 years. He’s worked at the Courier-Post, Philadelphia Daily News, Delaware County Daily Times, primarily as a sportswriter, and is currently a sports editor at Newspaper Media Group and an adjunct journalism instructor at Rowan University.
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