The Baseball Academy
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Return to Play trending in Canadian sporting circles

"Return to Play" might well be the three most popular words in the world of Canadian amateur sports these days.

After three months of being informed of training and workout sessions that were constantly accompanied by terms such as on-line, virtual and in isolation, athletes and coaches alike must have breathed a collective sigh of relief as sport governing bodies, both provincially and nationally, were sending out a flood of email information regarding protocols and guidelines for the new world in which we live late last week.

It was a reality that Baseball Academy owner Jean-Gilles Larocque contemplated, quite seriously, just two weeks ago, when his Lorne Street indoor baseball training facility was approved in Phase 1 of the Ontario plan. "We received approval to be treated essentially the same as an indoor golf driving range," he explained.

"But before we even moved forward with the decision to open, we had some very courageous conversations in my own household as to whether we were comfortable with it, could we go to sleep at night. We definitely did not want to be the reason that things started to spread."

Multiple conversations ensued with health officials, paperwork galore to be completed, but all in the name of a safe environment for kids. "We check temperatures as people arrive, track all visitors to the venue, set everything up ten feet apart (he noted that they have the room to exceed the six-foot requirement), have staff screening at the doors, and have just one or two people feeding the balls into the equipment."

And with that all in place, the doors were open, welcoming enough local youngsters to actually run a complete simulated tournament (more on that at a later date). "We felt comfortable with the amount of people that are in there," said Larocque. "People were very respectful, no spectators were allowed in the building, but we did have some people that still shied away - which is fine."

"We understand that. The biggest thing for me was receiving a note that thanked us for providing a safe environment for kids to be active from some of the parents. That meant the world."

Late Friday afternoon, Baseball Ontario issued a series of memos to their membership, outlining the requirements needed to host outdoor workouts. While one and all recognize that actual games being played locally is still a little way off, outlines of some of the required changes are already circulating.

"They are talking about the possibility of games with umpires situated (six feet) behind the pitcher, no lead off at first base, having players sanitize their hands every half inning (rather than try and continuously sanitize the baseballs)," said Larocque. "There's a variety of things that will need to be done."

"I'm not sure exactly how much it's still going to look like baseball," he added with a laugh.

That said, the long-time teacher and baseball mentor is in the camp of those who do not view an environment that favours more practice time at the expense of fewer games as being a particularly catastrophic scenario for player development.

"I think we got lost sometimes with thinking that we need to be playing all the time," he said. "I understand that the game is kind of the test or the exam, where you get to put into practice what you have worked on in practice. But too often, it seems, we don't even give the kids the time to study, so to speak."

"If you're playing two games a week and then tournaments as well, there is very little time to get practices in."

If Jean-Gilles Larocque is ultra-focused on his sport of choice on a regional scale, Craig Vokey must take a more "big picture" approach.

As president of Karate Canada since 2016, the native Newfoundlander turned Sudbury resident for more than a quarter century (moved here in 1994) has been privy to the very discussions that have been the genesis of the Return to Play guidelines that Larocque and thousands of others involved at the grassroots level must rely on to plan their next move.

"We keep in very close contact with Sport Canada, and they, in turn, were looking to Health Canada for guidance," Vokey explained. "For Karate Canada, we wanted to make sure that we were continually referring people back to the Health Canada guidelines, because things were changing so fast."

"We wanted to get some high level guidance out to all of the members, with the caveat that this is subject to further guidance from your provincial association and your region," added the long-time organizer of the Laurentian Karate Club. "That was our strategy. We were really pressed to get it out as quickly as we could."

Still, Vokey is not the least bit surprised when it is noted that the wording, across a variety of sports, bears a great deal of resemblance when one scans through the offerings that are now available on the website of pretty much every national sport governing body in the country.

"We looked at how other federations have been handling things," he said. "Everyone was kind of similar. Some groups would get into a few more intricacies, but we didn't have to completely re-invent the wheel. We really piggy-backed on a number of other national federations."

Where folks like Larocque and others can narrow the scope of their attention to the specifics of what is happening in Sudbury and Ontario - Larocque did note that the next step for baseball is contingent on when the City makes the fields available for rental - those who operate at the level of Vokey and his brethren might find themselves being pulled in multiple directions.

"Because we deal with ten provinces and a territory, what we did face was the fact that some provincial bodies (B.C. and Quebec, most notably) could be a little more pro-active with their sport authorities," said Vokey. "Other provinces are quite small, with organizations run completely by volunteers."

And there were other twists and turns to be contemplated, as one and all sailed into uncharted waters. Insurance coverage for on-line training sessions was not anticipated just four months ago. "We had to go through a bit of a consultation with our insurance regulators," said Vokey.

"And you look at the possibility of an outbreak through one of the existing martial arts clubs - what are the repercussions? That's something that we have thought about, and I would say thought about it a fair amount."

But with the guidance of experts in the field, Vokey and those filling his shoes in all of the other NSOs and PSOs forge forward, creating a landscape that attempts to return young athletes safely to some form of physical activity.

It's a "Return to Play" process that is surely appreciated by the thousands involved in sport in Canada.

And it's no easy task.

SRWC - Chartered Professional Accountants