Graham Baughn was driving near his home in Aurora when he saw it. Like a beautiful mirage in a baseball desert. The game he loves, finally, returned to grace.
Baughn, a former Division I pitcher and now the head baseball coach at Thomas Jefferson High School, pulled into the parking lot of a community diamond with a game already in progress. He didn’t know any of the players.
He didn’t care. His months-long baseball blues started to fade.
“I stopped, sat in my car, and watched an inning or two,” Baughn said. “I’ve missed it so much. This is the first time in 10 years that I didn’t have baseball in the spring. It was really weird.”
Listen close the next time you’re near a baseball or softball field. The sound of bat-on-ball is echoing up and down the Front Range — and not just at the Rockies’ workouts at Coors Field. Recreation and club leagues are in full swing after the coronavirus pandemic led to the postponement or cancellation of spring play.
The National Adult Baseball Association’s Denver chapter is home to 82 teams that combine for more than 1,500 participants; ranging in age from 18-and-under to 48-and-above. Their season had been slated to start March 29, but only in recent weeks have games resumed. The lack of available fields, though, has created time constraints and shortened most games to seven innings.
Many municipal-owned diamonds are still closed over pandemic health-and-safety measures.
“We’re using some parks that we don’t normally use, which means they aren’t the typical baseball field with the grass infield,” said Joe Collins, Denver NABA league president. “We never normally do that, but we’re doing that this year to get started. The guys have been awesome. They don’t care. They just want to get out, say hi to their teammates, and play some catch.”
Baughn plays in a competitive NABA division against others with college and varsity high school baseball backgrounds. Baughn relishes the chance to play infield after a lifetime of pitching, but said he takes it all “pretty lightly.”
Then again, Baughn said as he laughed, “We’ve got some guys that talk trash and yell at umpires. In the heat of the moment, you forget it’s a Sunday men’s league.”
Baughn’s first game back amid the pandemic was cause for celebration — with a different look.
“Some guys wear masks in the dugout and some in the field. Some of us are more mindful than others,” Baughn said. “We’re reducing high-fives. In between innings, I’m sanitizing my hands and not licking my fingers all the time.”
Health-and-safety measures are magnified for youth leagues’ returning to play. Triple Crown Sports, a Fort Collins-based company that organizes roughly 200 youth sports tournaments nationally, is home to club baseball and softball teams that would typically travel across the country. Now, games are played regionally.
Erica Judge is an assistant coach for the TC Stars 18 Gold softball team made up of 16 elite high school seniors. Their team has already played in more than 28 games since mid-June with specific health guidelines — socially-distanced dugouts, no shared softballs or handshakes, and masks for coaches.
“On the ballfield, we’re close to people, so we needed to learn to talk through a mask when it’s 95 degrees out,” Judge said. “It was difficult breathing when you wanted to talk to your pitcher from first (base). Those changes took a while getting used to, but now it just feels almost normal to us. We’ve got our routines down and we’ve played so many games in a small amount of time. We just adapted.”
Hannah Hollander, a TC Stars 18 Gold outfielder and Valor Christian High School graduate, said those precautions give players comfort to resume play and stay safe.
“It was a way for us to get out there and just forget what was going on for an hour or two,” Hollander said. “It felt like things were going back to normal.”
America’s favorite pastime is on the comeback trail.
“I love being able to go to the field and see a group of guys who maybe haven’t even played high school baseball, but they’re playing against each other and loving the game,” said Collins, the Denver NABA league president. “Then I can go to another field and see guys who played college or minor league ball. Then a group of older guys that are out there playing and holding on to the dream, because that’s what they want to do.
“It’s just awesome.”