My name is Michele Walton, and I’ve been a baseball mom for 8 years. My son started at the very young age of 3, the tiniest T-ball player ever, and I have happily watched him grow into the ballplayer he is now.
This is my story about COVID-19 and how our county wrecked baseball in 2020!
Through the ups, the downs, it can easily be called the strangest year in baseball. The roller coaster started at the first shutdown in March and has continued through a recent County Commissioners Board, where the decision was made to proceed with a sudden cancelation of our players. The notice came without warning, abruptly canceling us just before the start of a game. Our teams weren’t allowed to play, and neither was the team that traveled to play. As I found out, there was no credible reason for this cancellation. We found this rule came down based on the Commissioners’ personal choice, rather than any facts related to the activity.
This season started with Oak Harbor Baseball Association having free workouts for any kid that wanted to participate. It was great! The boys got to keep moving. They worked on strength training and baseball skills. I believe it helped condition the boys before the big day. The tryouts were held in late February. Within the week, they would find out whether they made the team. Usually, teams would have 3-4 practices per week, minimum. Coaches would schedule games and tournaments and would play an average of 3-4 games during a tournament weekend. This year, once the team was chosen, they had 1 week of practices before the first shutdown.
On March 11th, Little League announced they would be canceled until April 13th. Our league wasn’t told to cancel at this point. It was March 13th when we were officially told to shut down for 2 weeks.
Fifteen families, not including the Babe Ruth team, were ultimately affected by this decision. Every one of us had the intention of watching our kids’ play ball and cheering them on. Imagine, after finding out you made the team, the disappointment of possibly not having a season at all. These kids worked so hard, and it was so tough to see them sad.
We waited, two weeks went by, and still no news. It seemed like it was the season that never was. Finally, on May 19th, we got the news we could start back up with specific guidelines. Phase 2 meant practices with just 4 boys at a time, separation by 6 ft. and sanitizing equipment. Although we were only allowed to practice at this point, the kids were on the field, and they were happy. We couldn’t wait to submit for Phase 3.
Phase 3 approved, the guidelines stated up to 50 people per field. There were no words that could describe the pure joy we all felt at that moment. It really was music to our ears. We could have the whole team practice on the field together, of course, still keeping at a distance and following the safety guidelines. It was so great to watch these coaches and our boys getting some real ball time.
Things were going well, and the boys were growing as a team, finally. We were playing games and scheduled a tournament that would be held here. Leaders ensured precautions were taken. The league taped off the bleachers. Families and players quickly left the field so the other teams could get ready. Opposing families sat on opposite sides of the field, and the staff sanitized used surfaces between games. The players wore masks in the dugout, and no guests were allowed.
On July 20th, the Governor announced people were restricted to having contact with 10 people per week; we thought this was doom for our boys. Thankfully, we got good news in a letter from Olympia the go-ahead to practice and play games. Another uplifting moment. Practices were going well, and games were scheduled.
July 29th was when the county got involved, right before a game. As both teams were arriving, we were told by our coaches that Island County Commissioners had shut us down. They said we wouldn’t be allowed to play this game and that we had to leave the field right away. We all stood there, shocked, wondering why. I honestly couldn’t believe it and thought for a second it had to be a joke. Sadly it wasn’t, and everyone was again disappointed. It didn’t make any sense. Why were these kids getting punished? As I stood in disbelief, I couldn’t bring myself to leave. I wondered what it was this time and knew I needed to find out.
The only thing I heard so far was supposedly someone drove by and complained and that we would only be allowed to have 10 people at a time at our park, which in our case would be the 2 fields and the dog park, all considered as one. Honestly, I was livid and posted on Facebook about the shutdown.
A friend said she messaged a board member. I was hopeful that at least practices would be allowed. In the meantime, I was still trying to find out what exactly happened, who made this decision, and who I would talk to about getting us back on the field. After calling around, I was told all 3 commissioners voted for this decision. I got Jill Johnson’s number, tried to call, no answer. Since I hadn’t heard anything new, I decided to message Jill. I told her how frustrated and confused I was. We had followed the safety guidelines and had a letter from Olympia. I explained I saw people at other parks who were not wearing masks or distancing, with no sanitizing stations. She responded that practices were limited to 10ish. Commissioner Johnson stated that the big problem was out of town teams from phase 2 counties. She said they watched our active cases grow and were trying to pull back on all non-essential activities that don’t impact businesses. Her goal was to act before the Governor did…., “so we can push back and show we are monitoring and acting in an attempt to show him we can manage AND keep our businesses open.” She knew it was disappointing, but they were trying to get the spread rate down in hopes to have the schools open. I forgot to ask her what she thought the Governor would say about all our other parks with people not following the guidelines. We followed the safety rules, established sanitization procedures, which other parks neglected. It was appropriate to allow our teams to play within Phase 3 guidelines, just like others. She said she would talk with public health to “see what we might be able to figure out.” I was appreciative and hopeful.
I attended the Island County Board meeting, thinking we would hear good news, but it was a mess. Nothing like I thought it would be. Jill got worked up and said we invited an infected county into our county. She mentioned the letter complaining about the number of people at the fields. We were falsely accused of disregarding guidelines. Commissioner Johnson then warned about playing out of town teams and stated that their posted signs explained such. However, There were no signs at or near the fields. The meeting ended with the possibility of changing the numbers of players per field, which could allow practice. That determination would come two weeks later.
What a joke! The Commissioners, at one point, discussed going back to before the vote. Jill even asked if any of the listeners could explain what they were trying to say, I wanted to, but they didn’t let us. It could’ve been so plain and simple but was made into such a complicated discussion. It was also stated that there hadn’t been an uptick due to the tournaments. August 18th, the Island County Board of Health passed a motion that limits outdoor recreation and sporting activities to 10 people or less unless a safety plan is submitted to the Island County Health Officer with a request for a waiver to increase the number of people up to the Governor’s limit.
The waiver would allow the group size to be increased up to the Governor’s Modified Phase 3 limit of 50 people or fewer (subject to change by the Governor’s Office), with the following requirements for teams:
• Limited to 1 event involving (or with) one opposing team in 7 calendar days
• No tournaments
• No teams or players from another county
According to this, the whole team could only meet once per 7 days only after submitting a waiver. So I guess practicing as a team was out of the question.
In an article written by Whidbey News-Times on August 11th, Keith Higman recommended that recreational sports teams from Phase 2 counties shouldn’t be practicing on Island County fields. County officials had been denying the teams from other counties asking to come practice on county fields. The article also stated that neither Higman nor Johnson are sure if communications were made directly with the tournament organizers to the teams. They both said the parks and recreation districts may have been informed, though. Clearly, the decision to shut baseball down was based on the assumption that we brought in teams from differing phases to infect our county. The lack of notification to the teams made these policy choices presumptive and punitive without cause.
After all was said and done and after all the hard work put in to keep our season going no one in our county was left playing to schedule games with so that was it, our season was over. Although this was the oddest, hardest, and most emotional baseball year we’ve had, we are looking forward to the next season.