At the same time that the Duluth Huskies called off their season Wednesday, Hermantown and Esko high school-age baseball players gathered at Fichtner Field in Hermantown to play games on the first day Minnesota COVID-19 restrictions on youth sports were eased.
James LeGarde couldn’t have been happier to be on the field.
The recent Esko graduate had his senior basketball season end hours before playing the Section 7AA final and then never stepped on a baseball diamond for the varsity and American Legion seasons due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Since LeGarde plans to attend the University of Minnesota to study, that appeared to mark the end of his playing days. But Gov. Tim Walz’s recent announcement of the next phase in reopening the state was a reprieve.
“It’s been hard being cooped up not playing basketball or baseball,” LeGarde said before Hermantown's 1-0 victory. “All the gyms are closed so I have nothing going on. I’ve been trying to go to the field with my buddies every once in a while and get some cuts in and stay in shape. I’m sure I will be a little rusty today.”
Though the Legion and VFW seasons were canceled last month, once the go-ahead was given for youth teams to practice and play, Northland baseball squads hustled to form and create matchups against each other.
Hermantown has anywhere between 15 and 30 games scheduled, depending on the number of doubleheaders. Troy Warren, a varsity assistant who is coaching the summer team, is glad the players have the opportunity.
“You don’t know what to say to them. You want to support them and you want to give them hope, but with all this uncertainty it was really tough,” Warren, who has coached this senior class since they were in Little League, said describing the long spring off. “I’m happy to see them smiling again and playing baseball again.”
Hermantown began practicing June 1 when outdoor sports were allowed to have 10 people or less on the field.
But all that practice and no play, gets stale in a hurry.
“It’s really nice out and it just feels good to get out and play and throw the ball around,” said recent Hermantown graduate Jeb Paczynski, a first baseman and pitcher who plans on playing football at Bemidji State. “It’s nice being able to play competitive sports again. I was really missing it.”
Hermantown senior-to-be Luke Lind has been running and biking to stay in shape, but the catcher said nothing beats getting back out on the field.
“It’s nice that we’re starting baseball finally,” Lind said. “It’s a couple months late, but it’s better than nothing.”
The situation is somewhat different in Duluth.
Nick Garramone, the new Duluth Marshall baseball coach who didn’t get a chance to help the Hilltoppers defend their Class AA state title due to the season’s cancellation, is coaching a hodgepodge of Denfeld and Marshall players this summer.
“The challenge here in Duluth is we are not supposed to have sanctioned games until July,” Garramone said.
That’s due to an ordinance barring sports on city fields until July 1. Garramone expects to eventually use Wheeler Field as his team’s home base.
Getting to play at all is the silver lining in an otherwise bleak period of time.
“These kids get to get out of the house and play, be with their pals and be in some game-type situations instead of just playing backyard baseball or practice,” Garramone said.
While the game is the same, there are a couple noticeable differences being employed during this stage of re-entry. If an umpire is at a certain age and doesn’t feel comfortable calling balls and strikes behind home plate, they can do so from the infield. Also, traditional handshakes and backslaps are replaced with a tip of the cap from the sidelines.
LeGarde is fine with any changes as long as they allow him to wear a uniform and swing at pitches.
“I’m just glad to be back playing,” he said. “Whatever it takes to play, I’m fine with it.”
Though the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association is allowing spring sports varsity teams to play games in July, outgoing Superior activities director Ray Kosey said his school has no plans to join the competitions.