Armed with a mandate to help promote physical literacy within youth in Greater Sudbury, Active Sudbury has partnered with Sudbury.com to bring readers a series of updates from a variety of local sports, as groups search to find ways to help keep local children active, all while remaining compliant to both health protocols as well as the Return to Train/Play guidelines of their governing bodies.
With a hitter and nine fielders/defenders spread over a standard field of some 50,000 square feet, baseball was one of the very first team sports to be granted some form of COVID-compliant training protocol, and subsequent guidelines for play just a month or two later.
Still, at the risk of tapping into an obvious and very weak pun, there is no doubt that the virus threw local coaches in the sport a definite curve ball.
"When we do our normal programming, we're planning to have the kids peak at mid-season, or maybe when they are getting ready to go for a tournament of the playoffs," explained long-time player Joey Moher, a strength coach and assistant director of player development with The Baseball Academy.
"The bullpens had been throwing since January, lifts were going all winter, and then the pandemic shut everyone down. You try and adapt quickly, but honestly, you don't even know what you're prepping for."
The facility which hosted the majority of off-season workouts, an absolute necessity in these parts where access to the diamonds might normally be limited to April through to October, would shutter things down on March 16th, eventually re-opening on June 1st. A few weeks later, the City provided the OK to resume practices on diamond #1 at the Terry Fox Sports Complex.
Still, as one of the first team sports to welcome back young athletes, there was a level of anxiety that was apparent, especially at the start. "There were definitely kids and parents that weren't sure, who hadn't bought in yet," acknowledged Moher. "But at every practice, you would show up, have your temperature taken, used a hand sanitizer after every session where they were touching the ball, and you had infielders working together and outfielders working together."
"It's a different way of practicing."
Though he may have benefitted from years and years of baseball training, Joey Moher had no background in dealing with a global pandemic - which, of course, made him no different than every other well-intentioned sports coach on the face of the planet.
Still, he knew that this is where he was meant to be.
"Growing up, I wasn't that student who could just spend all of his time, sitting in the classroom," he said. "I was the student who went straight to the gym after class." And while that ultimately opened the door for a brief stint as a baseball prospect in Texas, there was another avenue in the sport which helped to fill a void once his playing days were done.
"It was easy, but hard, to move to coaching," said Moher. "I couldn't see myself not playing. I still look back, from time to time, and wish I was still playing, absolutely, but I've learned more from baseball in the past four to five years of coaching that I did playing my whole life."
The time had come to merge that baseball knowledge with the ever-evolving protocols that came courtesy of Baseball Canada, Public Health Sudbury & Districts, the City of Greater Sudbury, and the like.
If diamond dimensions provided a level of comfort in the outdoor setting, the same could not be said as teenagers and pre-teens worked on their game indoors at the baseball facility just off Lorne Street. "The bigger adjustment is definitely indoors," said Moher. "It's just about how close everyone is. You have to keep your distance, even when you are just putting a ball on a tee for a kid."
With game play not even introduced to the mix in Sudbury until September, coaches like Moher and many others took full advantage to better prepare their athletes for what lies ahead. "Being in the north, all winter long, normally, we are stuck in the batting cages," said the 23 year-old graduate of Bishop A Carter Catholic Secondary School and Cambrian College.
"So we get to hit, hit, hit, hit. But because we had so much more field time this year, right into late fall, we were able to work on tons of defense: glove work, footwork, working out cutoffs. Defensive work really needs that field time. Outfielders need to understand their angle, their route to the ball, and learn about setting up for a throw to wherever you need to throw."
"It's about making sure that we get set and lined up and that we keep our feet underneath us."
Still, there are elements that only game play can correct.
"Yes, you need reps, but you also need reps with different factors, external factors like wind and such. And when you get that good hitter in the lineup coming up, you have to know that he's going to hit the ball hard - you're anticipating that. When you get to the bottom of the order, you might anticipate soft contact and be a little more careful of something that might drop in with the guy who doesn't have as much pop in his bat."
Despite this recent run of beautiful weather, it's back to an indoors venue for those who still want to enjoy the summer pastime of peanuts and cracker jack. Certainly, competitive ball players are among the regulars. But truthfully, there is something in this for anyone who simply wants to enjoy some physical activity.
"The environment here (Baseball Academy) is that our coaches will make it fun," said Moher. "The Hit Trax software is great. If a batter is struggling, we can make it work - everything can be adjusted. We have the cameras that come with it, so we can break things down, go over the mechanics."
"But we always leave time to have some fun at the end of a workout session."