Music blared from the speakers of Thorco Field in Coeur d’Alene last week as sun-kissed fans took in an American Legion baseball game.
The aroma of hot dogs emitted from a concession stand near the dugout of the Coeur d’Alene Lumbermen, a group of age 19-and-under players whose spring high school seasons at Lake City and Coeur d’Alene were canceled because of coronavirus concerns.
This setting – a game between the Lumbermen and the Spokane Crew – didn’t suggest that they were playing amid a worldwide pandemic.
Other than multiple signs that encouraged six-foot social distancing, small groups of maskless spectators spread relatively apart, and players constantly sanitizing their hands, it was June baseball as usual.
“The kids have been like spring chickens out there, happy they’re able to play again,” said Lumbermen coach Erik Karns, who also leads the Coeur d’Alene High team. “We’ve had to be flexible. One of the big lessons we got out of this pandemic is the need to be flexible.”
High school baseball and Little League in the Spokane and Coeur d’Alene area was shelved, but Idaho’s Legion board of directors gave the season the green light in May as part of a phased plan.
Spokane teams that are usually Legion-affiliated – each is running independently this summer – hope to play games in Washington if Spokane County moves into Phase 3 of the state’s reopening mandate.
With Idaho recently moving into Phase 4, it’s opened things up for Legion teams in Kootenai County, including the Lumbermen, Prairie Cardinals and Northern Lakes.
Idaho’s Legion season initially started with social distancing modifications that placed umpires behind the pitchers mound and near the on-deck circle, and gear was to be placed outside of a dugout that only allowed a few players at a time.
Things have since returned to standard procedure.
“With the pain of losing that year of high school baseball, the players have really bought into everything,” Karns said.
It was a strange adjustment for players like Lumbermen outfielder Riley Smith, who recently lost his senior season at Lake City.
“The first couple of games were kind of weird, but we were just happy to be playing,” Smith said.
Smith opted to skip his senior basketball season to focus on baseball and to strengthen his body in the weight room, an effort to help his recruitment.
But when the coronavirus ultimately canceled the season he’d been preparing for, he was discouraged, and said he lost some of the muscle he gained due to closing of area gyms.
Smith’s spirits were lifted in May when he learned he would still get an American Legion season.
“I wasn’t surprised. I knew our Legion board would do everything it could to have a season,” said Smith, who batted .333 as a Lake City junior. “The board really cares about the players.”
The season would come with a few caveats, though, as the Lumbermen – who typically play games throughout the Pacific Northwest and often in the Seattle area – would be confined to games in Idaho and Montana.
The American Legion World Series in Shelby, North Carolina, was canceled, and Idaho’s State Legion Tournament in Idaho Falls will include only teams from North Idaho and Eastern Idaho. Lewiston opted to not field Legion teams this spring and teams from Boise will play games only in Boise.
Players also know that games and tournaments can be canceled .
The Lumbermen were slated to play in a tournament in Montana last weekend, but the Missoula City-County Health Department sent the host Missoula Mavericks’ American Legion president a letter Friday, ordering a cancellation of the event.
“With all that is going on, the players know that every game they play this summer could be their last, and they’ve taken that to heart,” said Karns, whose team has played 13 games.
“For the kids that have been able to play this summer, it’s worked out, but you never know when or if it can all be shut down.”
Mt. Spokane Legion coach Alex Schuerman, who is also the head coach at Mt. Spokane, would be happy to get any games in.
Schuerman is navigating Spokane’s social distancing mandates and working out the logistics of a possible season if Spokane moves into Phase 3.
Watching games in Coeur d’Alene last week gave Scheuerman a hankering for a return to the diamond.
“It’s good for the soul to be around baseball and to see the kids’ joy with the crack of the bat,” Schuerman said. “There wasn’t fear (in Coeur d’Alene), no social distancing issues.
“It’s like anything in life. If you are fearful, don’t attend.”
Yakima, which is still in Phase 1, is another area in Washington that has shut down sports, but there has reportedly been defiance by a local Legion team.
The Yakima Valley Pepsi Pak have pursued a 13-game homestand in eight days at a park in Selah, Washington, without the approval of the Yakima Health District.
Hundreds of fans were in the crowd to watch a Pak team that featured such local talents as former Selah High standout Dylan Bishop, a freshman pitcher at Whitworth last season before the Pirates’ season was canceled.
The Pak swept the Spokane Crew on Saturday in Selah.
“We’re all out here for the same reason – we love the game of baseball,” Bishop told the Yakima Herald-Republic. “We feel safe out here. We’re all practicing social distancing, we’re doing all we can, and we’re wary of what’s going on.”
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