Portland Coach Matt Rogers, right, offers a fist bump to his son, Nate Rogers, during the first game of the Maine Summer Sandlot Baseball League on Thursday at The Ballpark in Old Orchard. The league for high school age players was organized by Matt Rogers, an assistant coach at Bowdoin College, after the American Legion Baseball season was canceled. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

OLD ORCHARD BEACH — His hair matted with sweat, his jersey stuck to his body, his pants and catcher’s shin guards slathered in dirt, Eli Bezanson smiled.

“I actually feel good,” he said. “I’m ready to play another game.”

With sports that have been delayed or suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic slowly returning, the Maine Summer Sandlot Baseball League held its first games Thursday at The Ballpark – a doubleheader between Portland and Cony. The new league, which also includes teams from Westbrook and Cape Elizabeth – is for players ages 16-18 who would have played American Legion ball.

Under a cloudless sky and temperatures in the high 80s, it was a momentary return to normalcy for the players and for 50-or-so fans scattered throughout the stands.

Portland’s Aaron Goschki pitches while Cony assistant coach Dave Stolt, positioned behind Goschki, calls balls and strikes in place of a home plate umpire. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“That’s what I’ve been waiting for for months now,” said Bezanson, a catcher who is entering his senior year at Cony High in Augusta. “It was just baseball, a group of guys throwing the ball around and having fun.

“When you’re out there playing, you don’t think about everything going on. You’re just focused on the game and doing the best you can. The whole time I was out there, I didn’t think about (COVID-19) once.”

No one expressed any concerns over the coronavirus, noting that baseball is a sport that lends itself to social distancing and is played outside. Baseball is considered a “moderate risk” sport by the National Federation of State High School Associations in its guidelines for the return of high school sports.

Melissa Riley, whose son Brian Riley was the starting pitcher for Portland in the first of its two 8-1 victories, said, “I think if they were going to be playing any sport where you felt safe, it would be baseball because they’re not rubbing up against each other, there’s some distance, and they’re outside. I don’t have any concerns.”

The league is the brainchild of Matt Rogers, a long-time baseball coach who is now an assistant at Bowdoin College. After the high school baseball season was canceled, followed by the American Legion baseball season, he wanted something for the players who had lost so much.

He had already reserved some dates at The Ballpark, the former home of a Triple-A baseball team in the 1980s, so he put out a call for interested teams. Four responded.

They play under slightly different rules than regular baseball. There are no umpires: Balls and strikes are called by a coach who stands behind the pitcher between the mound and second base, outs on the bases are called by the base coaches, and base runners aren’t allowed to take a lead.

Players were instructed to maintain social distancing in the dugout but had to be reminded a couple times, especially when they leaned on the fence at the top of the dugout. The benches inside the dugout were striped to indicate proper spacing. The balls were wiped with a sanitizing cloth between innings.

Each player is paying $150 to participate, with the money going toward field fees, jerseys and hats. If it’s necessary to use the stadium lights, it will cost each player about $8 for that game.

A few fans watch Cony play Portland in the Maine Summer Sandlot Baseball League opener on Thursday. About 50 fans were scattered throughout the park for Portland’s 8-1 victory. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The players were more than willing to put up with a couple new rules to get back on the diamond.

“It’s been almost a year (since he last played baseball),” said Portland pitcher Aaron Goschke, who recently graduated from Gorham High and will attend UMaine-Farmington. He pitched four scoreless innings in relief. “I was a little anxious (on the mound), but I was able to battle it and was able to throw strikes. It just felt really great to be out there.”

“I’ve been very excited for this,” said Cony’s Riley Geyer, a three-sport standout who will be a senior this fall. “Every day I thought to myself, ‘Two more sleeps before we play; One more sleep before we play baseball.’ This is great.”

After the first game, Rogers said this is exactly what he was hoping for.

“It’s about kids having fun,” he said. “This gives them a chance to be a kid again.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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