If you walk to McConnell Park in Savin Hill to catch a Dorchester Baseball game, one of the first things you may notice is the bright yellow caution tape stretched along an unfenced side of one of the fields.
The tape is there to prevent anyone not playing in the youth league from getting too close to the field — a sin worse than videotaping signs at games, these days.
Then you notice everything else that’s different: the chairs spaced out every six feet, replacing the dugout. The umpire stands behind the mound instead of at the plate, to help ensure social distancing. High-fives are prohibited.
It’s baseball played at a COVID-19 pace. For Charles Maneikis, the co-president of Dorchester Baseball, it’s what the organization is doing to give their kids something like a normal summer, even though it was an uphill battle for the all-volunteer group.
“We could have chosen the easy route out ... and said, 'You know what, we don't have paid staff, we're all volunteers, this is almost mission impossible,'" he said. "We could have chosen not to have it, even though it was allowed. And we thought that the kids needed it. We thought that the community needed it, that the community wanted it, and it was time to take a step back towards some semblance of normalcy for young people.”
As Phase 3 of the state’s reopening plan continues, youth baseball leagues are one of the few sports that have been deemed safe enough to return. While baseball is baseball, this season will look a whole lot different.
For Dorchester Baseball, which has a Little League and a Babe Ruth branch, new rules about spacing and less contact have been imposed for games that started this week. Call it pandemic play.
Other changes under those rules: Coaches must always wear masks, and players must wear masks when not in the field. There are no team huddles, ever. Each player is supposed to only use his or her own equipment, like bats and helmets.
There's no handshake line after the game. Nor are candy, chewing gum, sunflower seeds or spitting allowed — in a baseball game.
Stephen McCarthy, president of Brookline Youth Baseball, said the league didn’t schedule games for their youngest players since dealing with smaller children is difficult under normal circumstances.
“So we have anywhere from four to five kids doing fielding or hitting as opposed to running games, where it’s just hard to control the kids and social distance and make sure that everybody is properly sanitized," McCarthy said.
But Brookline’s older players have been back for a few weeks now. McCarthy admits the games, which have many of the same restrictions as those in Dorchester, have a different look.
“But I think at the end, you know, everyone’s just so happy to be out playing," he said. "The kids have been cooped up, the parents have been dealing with their kids, and everybody’s been going a little crazy. Those first few games when the kids were out on the field was really a fantastic kind of release of all of that stress."
Of course, there’s the question of how safe it is to be playing baseball during a pandemic.
William Hanage, an associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said there are a couple of reasons why youth sports may pose a lower risk.
“If they take place outdoors, if they involve children, who are less likely to suffer the most severe effects. Although, perhaps those children could end up transmitting to someone else," he said. "But they’d be less likely infected if they’re outdoors. So you could take that together and consider it to be, perhaps,a low-risk activity, relatively speaking.”
But he said any risks that come with playing have to be weighed with other risks, as society slowly creeps back open.
In Dorchester, about 60 percent of the players who registered for the spring signed up for the summer, more than Maneikis initially thought would. The league has special “COVID umpires” at games to keep track of who has been in contact with each other.
Maneikis said the idea is to ensure that COVID-19 doesn’t get into a lineup, and the kids and the people looking after them are following the guidelines.
“When they come to the game, that means they’re not sick, they’re feeling well, they don’t have a fever, they’ve washed their hands and they’re ready to come and play in the structure that we have provided them," he said.
Shaun O’Sullivan, a co-vice president of Dorchester Baseball, has two sons currently playing. He said summer baseball is a rite of passage.
“That’s something, with everyone’s cooperation and tremendous leadership with our board of directors, we’ve been able to give to the kids," O’Sullivan said. "Just to see them run and throw and hit the ball and have fun with it, too, it’s a huge staple for our group, for them to celebrate and experience.”
And, hopefully, not get sick. But if the virus has done anything, it’s shown that even the best plans aren’t foolproof. Baseball this summer comes with new risks. But how much risk is acceptable? And what’s a game really worth in a pandemic?
For players and their families, the answer may simply be an afternoon playing and watching ball.