As Idaho slowly proceeds through the stages of reopening in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, local American Legion baseball teams are returning — cautiously — to the field.
Pocatello Legion teams started holding tryouts on Monday and will continue those throughout the week. Blackfoot held tryouts on Saturday and started team practices in mid-week, while Malad has planned to start practicing next Monday.
"We're playing baseball, man," Blackfoot Double-A coach Zach Reay said. "We're pretty fortunate. I know for sure Oregon and I think Washington shut down (the entire season), so we're pretty fortunate we have this opportunity, and we're going to take advantage of it."
Idaho moved into its second phase of reopening on May 16, which allowed gatherings of 10 or fewer people as long as they followed social distancing rules.
That opened the door for Legion teams to hold tryouts and practices, albeit ones that looked different than they have in the past.
In order to abide by the small-group rule, the Pocatello teams are holding four days of tryouts spread across three separate fields — Halliwell Park, as well as the football and baseball fields at Hawthorne Middle School — cycling groups of players through each station.
"We've got about 85 or so kids trying out for the summer," Pocatello Runnin' Rebels coach Nick Sorrell said. "With Legion, if everything was normal, we have tryouts Monday and Tuesday and then we start playing games probably on Friday, is how quick it would be. This year, it's a little bit different."
Blackfoot also dealt with the small-group rule during tryouts, while Malad — which returns most of its team from a year ago — didn't hold official tryouts, but is planning to do the same when starting practice.
"We just spread the kids out," Reay said. "We went with the rule of 10, made sure everybody was six feet apart. ... We probably had close to 10 coaches out there, just making sure that everybody was adhering to the rules and (nobody) was going to get hit by a fly ball. It was interesting, but we made it work."
Without a high school season to evaluate players on, tryouts are more important for coaches this year. So is taking it slowly with the players as they build up arm strength and conditioning after spending most of the spring away from the diamond.
If everything goes according to schedule with Idaho's reopening, teams will be able to hold full practices starting May 30, when Stage 3 starts and gatherings of up to 50 people will be permitted.
Games can start June 13, when all restrictions on the size of gatherings will be lifted (as long as social distancing protocols are followed).
After that, teams are planning to have a schedule that looks as normal as possible.
"As far as we know, no teams have dropped out," Malad coach Russ Wilson said. "We had our schedule set to cover the teams in our division. ... We had them all scheduled to play, so I'm hoping that we can continue to meet that schedule."
That includes doubleheaders, tournaments, and out-of-state travel.
Pocatello is planning to host a wood-bat tournament with teams from around the area the week of the 13th, and both Pocatello and Blackfoot are planning to travel to tournaments in Montana.
"My schedule with the (Runnin' Rebels), I'm about 95% done," Sorrell said. "I'm just waiting on a couple other teams, because they're still trying to figure out what their region is going to allow them to do. ... But schedule-wise, we're looking at playing starting in mid-June, and then we're going to try to fit in 40-ish games before our district tournament, which is probably the third week of July. So we're going to be spending a lot of time at the ballpark, let's just say that."
Despite the national American Legion canceling regional tournaments and the World Series, the Idaho American Legion will still sponsor teams, and there will be district and state tournaments in Idaho.
The Area C tournament for Double-A and Single-A teams is scheduled to start on July 21, with the state tournament starting the following week and ending not later than July 31.
"Our state Legion board and the president, they got together and they came up with a plan for our state to actually be able to use the Legion as a sponsor," Sorrell said. "They set up some insurance for us, so that we can pay into that as an entire state, and we could still use the Legion patch and play under the Legion posts that we've been associated with."
That is, of course, if everything stays on schedule.
"Each day is kind of a curveball here, a curveball there, and we're just trying to work through things," Sorrell said. "It's longer days, but it's what we have to do right now. ... We're getting there. We're headed in the right direction."