This is the time of year when short hops and drag bunts are tabled by mire and muck; shagging fly balls replaced by judging ricochets off a gym wall.
The season is right around the corner for area high school baseball and softball squads, yet you wouldn’t know it thanks to the existing inconsistent weather pattern. One day its pushing 70 degrees and teams are out on the diamond, taking cuts against live pitching and rounding the bases. Soon those pleasant conditions are nixed, replaced with a slushy mix that chases everyone back indoors – back to donning sneakers instead of cleats; hardwood floors taking the place of dirt surfaces.
It’s not easy, area coaches are quick to point out, to put in the necessary work when you’re spending the bulk of your time cooped up within tight parameters. Other than fair and foul, baseball and softball were never meant to be restricted by nature. Not that Mother Nature – the only one claiming victory at this time of year – seems to care the slightest bit.
“We’re working on baserunning and we’re running on a gym floor, slipping and sliding all over the place,” notes Cumberland High softball coach Marty Crowley. “It’s that time of year when you’ve got your fingers crossed, hoping for a dry spell. If there’s any consolation, it’s that everyone is in the same boat.”
Burrillville baseball coach Skee Carter explained some of the technical obstacles his team has to deal with if the conditions are less than favorable.
“There’s only so much you can do in a gym, and we have (the Bronco Dome), which has a lot of glass,” the longtime Broncos mentor said. “We don’t have an indoor hitting cage. All we can do is soft toss and take infield with Incrediballs (something that looks like a baseball but has a softer surface).”
Baseball teams received clearance from the Interscholastic League to conduct workouts for pitchers and catchers on March 7 – according to Lincoln High baseball coach Ed Hunt, a maximum of eight pitchers and two catchers could participate – before engaging in full-squad workouts the on the 14th. That also served as the start-up date for softball.
Crowley feels that while pushing back the start of the regular season would improve the odds of getting on the field for longer stretches, teams would run into major conflicts by the time spring is in full bloom, which generally around these parts is mid-May.
“I would like the extra time just in case a kid might not throw in the winter, though if you push something back in the spring, now you’re into graduation. It forces kids to make a choice. Certainly not in regards to graduation, but awards nights and proms, etc,” Crowley replied. “The spring season is tough particularly when it comes to playoff time because there’s so much going on.”
Some coaches, knowing full well that it takes additional time to wake up their home playing surfaces up after a winter’s nap, are prepared to maximize every ounce of the indoor space made available. Those same coaches will also show a willingness to scrimmage on the road providing there’s a field out there that can withstand the punishment of unpredictable weather swings.
“We’re accustomed to working indoors,” said Hunt, mentioning that Lincoln has been unable to set foot on Chet Nichols Field but was able last Saturday to take infield and outfield on the football field. “We have three indoor mounds and an indoor batting cage. We’re able to set up a lot of work stations.”
There are other coaches who, elements be darned, will conduct practices outside for the simple reason of getting the players accustomed to the actual environment they will be competing in.
“We went out last Wednesday when it rained,” noted Carter. “We took infield on the grass portion (of Eccleston Field) because the dirt portion of the infield was all puddles and wet. That was certainly beneficial. Then we had our junior varsity pitchers throw to our varsity hitters on Thursday and Friday.”
Town officials have informed Cumberland’s softball and baseball outfits to stay off Tucker Field until given the green light. Located behind the high school is a softball field, which Crawley is thankful for.
“At least we’re throwing outside and not in a gym,” he said, mentioning that another resort is practicing in the school parking lot. “Some kids may look great in the gym, but then you get them out there and realize that they can’t judge a fly ball or anything in the gap.”
Those interviewed mentioned they have scrimmages lined up, though those plans could be in jeopardy if the snow showers scheduled for today and Thursday are as advertised. That would force teams to seek shelter and wonder if the fields will ever be ready by the first full week of April, the target date for teams to open play.
“The major leaguers go to Florida or Arizona for what, seven or eight weeks to prepare for the season in warm weather,” said Carter. “We have roughly two weeks until the start of ours.”
“It’s spring training in New England,” added Crowley.