Monday, May 20, 2024

THE FRONT ROW with MARK NELKE: After Little League World Series is canceled, local leagues adjust

| May 3, 2020 1:11 AM

When Brea Daniels heard the news this year’s Little League World Series, as well as the regional qualifying tournaments, were being canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, she cried.

“I was sitting in my office, at my desk, and I literally cried,” said Daniels, president of Coeur d’Alene Little League, which sent its all-star team to Williamsport, Pa., in 2018, and was one win away from sending another squad to the pinnacle of Little League baseball last summer. “You kinda see it coming ... but you hope for the best, obviously.”

Meanwhile, Sean Cherry and Paul Manzardo thought of all the memories those 12-year-olds will never be able to have.

“I’m disappointed for those players, coaches, and parents who are not going to experience, perhaps, the highest-profile sporting event that they will ever be a part of,” said Cherry, manager of that 2018 team that became the first Coeur d’Alene squad to qualify for the Little League World Series. He said he understands the decision of Little League Baseball, but “nonetheless, it’s a sad, sad day for thousands of 12-year-olds across the world.”

In 2013, Manzardo coached a Coeur d’Alene team that qualified for the Northwest Regional in San Bernardino, Calif., and was one win away from playing for a trip to Williamsport.

“The pinnacle of youth baseball is Little League baseball, and getting the opportunity to play on one of those local all-star teams, and representing your city ... those relationships those kids and families get to develop is memorable,” Manzardo said. “The people that put on those events, they treat those kids like royalty. They make them feel like they’re actual major league players. Kids come up to them in the stands and ask for autographs. It’s a big deal. And I feel bad for this year’s group, to have to miss out on that opportunity.”

THE DECISION to cancel the Little League World Series, scheduled for mid-August, and the qualifying regional tournaments have left local Little League organizations, like Coeur d’Alene Little League, to figure out what to do about this season.

Presidents of Little Leagues in District 1 — which includes leagues in Coeur d’Alene, Post Falls, Hayden, Rathdrum, Sandpoint, St. Maries, the Silver Valley and Lewiston — met recently to discuss the possibility of having a season this summer — albeit a short one.

The consensus — all want to play, if they can do it safely.

They’d like to play a shortened regular season, perhaps starting in mid-June, followed by the district (all-star) tournament.

That would be it for the season. Normally, the District 1 champion in the 12U, 11U and 10U divisions play the District 2 (Boise area) champion in a best-of-3 playoff for the state title. The 12U champion advances to regionals in San Bernardino — state is the end of the road in the 11U and 10U divisions.

But Daniels said District 2 is “probably” not interested in sending its district champs to North Idaho this year for the state playoffs. The state playoffs in all three divisions generally alternate between North Idaho (usually Croffoot Park in Hayden) and the Boise area.

BEFORE THE turn of the century, it was rare for teams from this area to even make it as far as San Bernardino.

A couple of Kootenai All-Stars teams, comprised of players from Coeur d’Alene and Post Falls, made it there.

Coeur d’Alene then went back-to-back in 2001 and ’02, then again in 2013 before going back-to-back again in 2018 and ’19.

Post Falls qualified for the Northwest Regional in 2009, then again in 2012 when it reached the title game.

Lewiston went in 2011, ’14 and ’17.

Manzardo can doubly empathize with this year’s Little Leaguers. These days, he’s head baseball coach at Lake City High, coaching seniors who didn’t get their final year of high school ball.

“All these memories ... you lose ’em all,” he said. “With Little League, I look back and it’s one of the greatest memories I have.”

While Manzardo’s team was in San Bernardino, they got to travel to Los Angeles and watch a Dodgers game — and see Coeur d’Alene Little League welcomed to Dodger Stadium on the big screen.

The players and coaches were in adjoining barracks with the team from Hawaii, which was there competing at the West Regional. The teams shared a bathroom area, mingled in each other’s barracks, and some keep in contact to this day.

“They were pulling for us, and we were pulling for them,” Manzardo said.

He watched his players engage in pin trading with the other players — “at first being reluctant in trading, and then all of a sudden diving in full force,” he said.

Aaron Boone was the analyst for ESPN at the time, asking questions to the players, “and now Aaron Boone’s the manager of the Yankees,” Manzardo said.

Manzardo’s son Kyle was on that 2013 Coeur d’Alene team. Kyle was a sophomore on the 2016 Lake City team, coached by Paul Manzardo, that won the state 5A title. So was Kodie Kolden, who played on the 2012 Post Falls all-star team that reached the championship game in San Bernardino.

Both are sophomores on the Washington State baseball team, which had its season cut short this year due to the pandemic.

“Now when they play against other Pac-12 teams, they run into some of those boys that they came in contact with in San Bernardino,” Paul Manzardo said.

WHEN COEUR d’Alene won in San Bernardino two years ago, the team didn’t have time to return home before heading to Williamsport.

Not that they didn’t mind the extra time on the road.

“For the kids, I think it was the opportunity for them to spread their wings a bit away from their nests, to see outside Coeur d Alene for a bit, and to be with their friends and teammates for the summer,” said Cherry, whose son Avrey was part of that 2018 squad. “Being on the road for 25 straight days as we were, working as a team with a common goal, while still having fun, and seeing how long they could keep the magic going is what I think some of them would mention. I know one thing — not one of them will ever forget any of it.”

It doesn’t happen every day, but Sean Cherry still thinks about Williamsport from time to time. He recalled some “dreary, long days” when he would watch the recordings of his team’s games — in Williamsport as well as San Bernardino.

One game he thinks about often is Coeur d’Alene’s opener at Williamsport, where it led a team from Michigan when an “unfortunate” call led the opponent rallying for a victory.

“It was such a great game,” said Cherry, who sells medical devices throughout the Pacific Northwest. “Our energy was there, we came out hard, we really shocked a very, very good team. And we had an unfortunate call that the umpire didn’t actually get right, but, that’s Little League baseball.”

Coeur d’Alene’s first baseman caught a foul popup for what most believed was the final out in the fifth inning. And in the transfer to toss the ball to the mound, he dropped the ball. The umpire ruled no catch, and the inning continued.

“You think about what could we have done if that was called an out, and we only three outs left,” Cherry said. “And we had a four-run buffer. I think about that ... we played great baseball, nothing to hang our heads about. If there’s one thing that I think about, that’s one thing.”

The irony of thinking about a loss nearly two years later was not lost on Cherry.

“Kids forget about it 10 minutes after the game,” he said. “Coaches are still grinding on it two years later.”

Cherry recalled a game at Canfield Sports Complex during that 2018 run — might have been a regular season game, perhaps a district tourney game. He was introduced to a gentleman who played in the Little League World Series some 50 years ago, on the winning team from New Jersey.

“This guy said, ‘I think about that moment, and that tournament, getting that far, and being with my friends, all the time,” Cherry said.

“That’s the one thing I’m going to think about, until the day I die,” Cherry said. “The one thing I’m really proud of what this little team did, getting that far.”

BACK TO this year, where league organizers are dealing with issues they never thought would be issues.

“At Canfield Sports Complex, we have porta-potties,” Daniels said. “How do we clean those; how do we make those safe? There’s no handwashing station there; how do we address that issue? I called looking for one; I’m on a six-week wait list for that.”

Six weeks.

According to Idaho Gov. Brad Little’s four-stage plan for “opening” our state, gatherings of more than 10 people (10-50 people) would not be allowed until May 30. Daniels was hoping at least some of her teams could practice before then, as much as the league’s limited field space would allow, though leagues would be pushing the 10-person limit with teams that usually have 12 players and 2-3 coaches. Little League said starting May 11, teams could practice with 10 or fewer.

“What if someone gets sick?” she said. “Yes, baseball is a social distancing-(friendly) sport, but everyone touches the ball. And most of the time when you’re in the field, you’re not wearing gloves. Does the away team get a certain ball? Does the home team get a certain ball?

The “good” thing is, the season can go later into the summer, as leagues don’t have to be done with the state tournaments by late July.

“If we can meet the safety requirements, I’d like to get them out as soon as possible. at least practicing,” said Daniels, also wondering how all the leagues — which are nonprofits — will be able to handle the extra expense of hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes and the like.

Last year, Coeur d’Alene’s 11U all-stars won the district title, then lost in the state playoffs to West Valley, which draws players from Eagle, Star and Middleton.

This year’s all-star teams have yet to be selected, but many of those players were likely to be picked for the 12U squad. And many of those players are on a travel team that plays tournaments in the spring and summer, outside of Little League, gaining experience playing with each other before the all-star teams are officially formed just prior to districts. All of those tourneys have either been postponed or canceled.

“They’ve been on that journey since they were 9, so it is disappointing for them,” said Daniels, who has one son currently in the Little League system, and another who played Little League years ago.

Coeur d’Alene recently posted polls on its Facebook page, asking families if they still want a Little League season this summer, even a shortened one.

Daniels said a few families said no, some for safety reasons, which she understands, and is working with those who have already paid for the kids to play, and want refunds.

“But the majority wants to play,” she said.

Mark Nelke is sports editor of The Press. He can be reached via email at Follow him on Twitter@CdAPressSports.