The crack of the bat. Sunshine and eye black, with a side of sunflower seeds. Baseball and softball practically are spring, which may help explain why both have simultaneously been so late in coming in 2018.
Throughout the country, high school baseball and softball programs have struggled to cope with brutal stretches of weather, both snow and heavy rain, that have wreaked havoc on athletic and academic schedules.
In some states, teams have been unable to get outside virtually all of April, pushing the start of the season to now. In others, extended stretches of back-to-back games to accommodate earlier cancellations threaten to stretch or undo pitching staffs. And even in states where games have taken place, some schools are struggling to play home games because of climate issues or lingering snow and rain impact on their playing surface.
While weather-related delays are a way of life in outdoor seasonal sports, the 2018 campaign has reached a new level.
Onaway, Mich., is still waiting to play a baseball game on its home field, which is thawing out from a late spring snowstorm.
“Every year, it’s pretty typical that we might get one last snowstorm of five or six inches,” said Marty Mix, the principal and athletic director at Onaway, which has 189 students. “This year, on a Friday (April 14), it started snowing at 2 a.m. and didn’t stop until Monday, when we had 39 inches of snow, with a layer of sleety ice. The next week, it got up to 65 degrees, but unfortunately, when you get that much snow, it isn’t going to melt quickly.”
Keep in mind that in other areas of the country, high school baseball and softball teams are either in the playoffs or preparing for them. Sadly, Onaway’s situation isn’t as rare as one might hope.
Onaway’s teams have had to travel to other areas of the state, sometimes playing a doubleheader against two different teams. The baseball team has played games in Plymouth, roughly 243 miles south. The softball team, which was a state runner-up in 2010 in Division 4, left Friday for games in an indoor facility in Brighton, roughly 217 miles south, and has played games in Sturgis, about 315 miles southwest.
“The gym gets a lot of abuse for practice,” Mix said. “We can do some skill work and hit in a cage there. You have to make do. We could sit and complain about it, but what good does that do? In 17 years here, I never remember a spring like this one and this is something I hope we will never see again.”
A similar scenario met softball teams in North Dakota, where heavy snow stuck around longer than usual because of consistently low temperatures. Schools waited for the snow to melt, and then when it did they were suddenly left with water and frost coming out of the ground.
Thompson High School is currently ahead of the curve in North Dakota, having racked up a 5-2 record. That’s a good start, except for the fact that the team should have played 14 games by this point.
“One nice thing about softball is you can play 2-3 games in a day,” Thompson coach Matt Chandler said. “Of our seven games, we played three two Saturdays ago, and then two this past Saturday.
“Now it’ll be hard to find time to practice with all the games we’re playing. We’re scheduled for six games this week. All the games have to be done by May 16 and then our region tournament starts on the 18th. We’re cramming 19 games into 25 days.”
Schools in Maine are also just getting going. Ellsworth, a 2017 state semifinalist, is just four games in thanks to postponements. The team has two doubleheaders scheduled. There’s a similar story in the state’s northernmost true city, where the Bangor Rams have played four games, meaning they’re also all but certain to be loaded up with doubleheaders.
While the schedule in Maine is always necessarily short, the weather in 2018 could make it nearly impossible for teams to play a full schedule before reaching the state tournament, particularly if additional inclement weather arrives.
In Massachusetts, Braintree coach Bill O’Connell said this was the most frustrating run of weather he has faced in his 10 years.
“We’re starting our eighth week of the baseball season and we’ve only played four games,” O’Connell said. “We normally would play 10 or more by May 1. It just means that we’re going to have to fit 16 games or so in from May 1 until Memorial Day, when our regular season cuts off. And we don’t exactly have MLB pitching to do it.”
O’Connell said that as rough as the season has been, his team is lucky to have access to artificial turf surfaces to practice on and an indoor facility — Braintree Baseball Club — where the team can get sport-specific workouts year round.
“It’s great that we can have the two fields here at Braintree and the indoor facility, but I think any coach would tell you they’d trade all the practice work for more games,” O’Connell said. “It’s not the same as going out and pitching during a game in the cold.”
The baseball team at Arrowhead (Hartland, Wis.), which made it to the state Division I semifinals last year, has had huge gaps between games because of the inclement weather. Its outfielders have gone weeks without seeing a fly ball.
“We were supposed to go to Central Illinois during our spring break to play games,” Hartland coach Nick Brengosz said. “But, they got snow on Easter Sunday, so we had to cancel that.”
To stay sharp, the team practices at an indoor facility 30 minutes away. The greater concern is building the team unity that can be best done with competition.
“You really have to have a pulse on the team,” Brengosz said. “People can get really restless. At times it felt like we were almost practicing to say we’re practicing. The kids can sense if you’re going through the motions. So, we went out to a Brewers game one night and tailgated and we did a Wiffle Ball game against the softball team. You have to try different things. You might not build baseball skills, but you can build camaraderie.”
To put the lack of action across the upper Midwest and Northeast in perspective, Alaskan baseball power Palmer has played three games. That’s a normal schedule flow for Alaska, though, as schools across the state do their best to dig out. For schools from Minnesota to Michigan to Massachusetts to be in a similar place as Alaska as the calendar turns to May is stunning.
Lakeville North (Lakeville, Minn.) finally got to play its first baseball game Thursday. The Panthers had a similar season in 2013 when they played their first game on the same date. The team is hoping to play 19 games of its 20-game schedule, even if that means a lot of doubleheaders.
“You really have to manage your bullpen and factor in everybody’s pitch count,” coach Tony Market said. “Watching the game (Thursday), in some of the fly ball situations, there were a few circuses out there. When you don’t get to practice, it’s hard to get the fundamentals right, like holding on runners and covering on bunts.”
Ridgeview (Colfax, Ill.) has had huge gaps between games because of the weather. To make up their schedule, the Mustangs are in the stretch of playing 10 games over 11 days. However, with only 15 players, keeping arms fresh will be difficult. Coach Randy Wittenberg said his players make a point to not talk about the weather because he’s stressed to them it’s not something they can control.
“I’ve got such great kids,” he said. “I tell them, inside this box is everything we can control, such as work ethic. I ask them what they can’t control and the first thing they mention is the weather.”
They may not be able to control it, but the reverse could be true. So far in 2018, the need to keep athletes safe has exceeded logistical concerns. Unfortunately, that means there hasn’t been a lot of baseball played. Everyone hopes that will change in May, whether there’s enough time to salvage a quasi-normal campaign or not.
At least some of the coaches expressed a reluctant acceptance of what they were facing. As Braintree’s O’Connell said, in the Northeast the programs have grown accustomed to seasons being hijacked by poor weather, even if the 2018 edition has left all shaking their heads.
“We all use a famous (Patriots coach Bill) Belichick quote around here,” O’Connell said. ” ‘It is what it is.’ “