Perhaps most overlooked in the lack of baseball to this point has been the overt loss of a daily conversation about the sport, such as the neat things that happened in yesterday’s game, and the excitement for today’s and tomorrow’s games.
Thankfully, beginning on July 6, those conversations will return with a flourish as Diamond Nation finally opens its summer tournament season with the Super 17 World Series and the 15U Diamond Nation World Series at its facility in Flemington, N.J.
“It’s been like counting the days to Christmas,” says Nico Vargas, who runs the Jersey Boyz Baseball program out of the D-Bat Baseball Academy in Mountainside, N.J. “When the governor said we could practice on June 22, I shared that with my players and that message went up everywhere, Snapchat, Twitter, you name it. The kids were scheduling cage time like crazy.” Vargas, a 2008 St. Joseph of Metuchen grad, is himself a former Diamond Jack.
That desire to return to some form of normalcy has been festering for months like a percolating volcano as New Jersey and the rest of the tri-state area, hit so hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, make the turn for home in this epic fight. Vargas, also the head baseball coach at St. Mary’s High School in Elizabeth, believes players’ pent up drive to compete will be reflected in their play on the field.
“You will see some of the most intense and competitive baseball in years,” says Vargas, who fields four teams ranging in age from 13 to 17 years old. “I expect these boys to bring a new competitive fire to the game. It’s such a great opportunity for them to get some sense of normalcy in their life. They will embrace it.”
While some sense of the old normal will return, Diamond Nation has been putting a detailed COVID-safe re-opening plan in place to prepare for the realities of what truly is a new normal, complete with the proper safety precautions. A detailed plan has been posted on DiamondNation.com, explaining the changes on the field and the on-site requirements off the field.
The most obvious on-field change will have the home plate umpire positioned six feet behind the pitchers mound. Also baseballs will be disinfected prior to each game and as necessary during games. Post-game handshakes, high fives, home run celebrations, etc. will not be permitted. Teams will have designated batting cage times. Home teams will hit 90 minutes before their game time and visiting teams will hit 50 minutes prior.
Diamond Nation’s “Taking Back The Turf” policies will continue to evolve throughout the summer as medical and governmental guidance changes. Face masks will be mandated upon entering and leaving the facility and using bathrooms. Ground markers are in place to help fans remain six feet apart. Hand sanitizers will be located strategically throughout the park.
Such adjustments and changes to normal activity is viewed as a small price to pay to return to the game players, coaches and families have been longing for since mid-March.
“Although our Bronx community and our entire country have been devastated by the pandemic, we feel fortunate to have the opportunity to return to our favorite activity at one of the best baseball venues in the nation,” says Eric Semler, who directs the impressive Bronx Bombers program. “Of course, resuming activity does carry with it a sense of trepidation and caution. We plan to go out of our way to practice social distancing and mask-wearing to the degree possible.”
The Bombers have been playing at Diamond Nation since the facility’s inception in 2009 and field teams at the 15U and 16U level. Both teams are highly ranked nationally, which has become commonplace with the Bronx Bombers program. While the Bombers program serves underserved youth mostly from the Bronx, it’s training facility is located in Yonkers, N.Y.
The Bucks County Generals Baseball program has gotten a head start with Pennsylvania a bit ahead of New York and New Jersey in the re-opening process. The Generals just competed in an event in western Pennsylvania. They, too, are looking forward to New Jersey’s return to baseball business on July 6.
“We’ve been running camps and the guys have been getting back to work,” says Patrick Devlin, who runs the 10-team Generals, which boast teams from ages 9 to 17 years old. “They’re chomping at the bit, for sure. I can’t remember a time I didn’t play baseball for this long, so I can only imagine what they are going through.”
Devlin says western Pennsylvania is ahead of Bucks County, Pa., too, where his program is based. “Out by State College people are out to dinner and it’s pretty much back to normal. Happier times are near.”
Devlin can see the difference already in the faces of his players’ parents.
“When the moms and dads drop off their boys you can see they want to stay,” says Devlin. “They have huge smiles on their faces. They are amped up to be back out there just like their kids.”
The Bucks County Generals have been training baseball players for 20 years and sending teams to Diamond Nation since 2012.
It’s been a trying time for the nation and particularly the hard-hit northeast area and that has been a challenge the players and coaches are anxious to show they have overcome.
“We are figuring this out collectively,” says Vargas. “Despite the circumstances, the kids are all putting in hard work. I can’t be more excited for these kids. They need this and we, as coaches, need this. My message to them is this is your re-start button. Be a kid again and enjoy the game. And families, enjoy the time you have watching your sons play baseball.”