Baseball is on hold, but that doesn't mean it has to come to a complete stop. That's the attitude of those overseeing youth leagues around the world, leading to a movement of creativity and innovation as adults figure out ways to keep young players engaged in the sport.
The Canadian Girls Baseball League has been among the most proactive in this arena, having created a virtual eight-week season that gives players the opportunity to develop their skills, set goals and communicate regularly with the people they would normally come in contact with on a baseball field during more normal times.
As one of the largest girls baseball leagues in the world, CGB, which includes more than 1,200 participants across Canada, was motivated to make sure their players were not missing out on anything during the COVID-19 shutdown. The virtual league is free to anyone who wants to participate, with girls ages 4 to 16 invited to play.
"The reaction initially was the reaction everyone has had around the world -- why can't we play outdoors?" said Dana Bookman, the league's founder and CEO. "That's the reality of things. I tried to explain it that maybe it's different, but this is something to keep your kids engaged and not just an activity that shows up that they can do or not. It gives them a goal and something to do."
• Pitch grips, fielding and hitting drills from the pros
Players are assigned to teams, and they communicate with coaches and staff through an online platform. All players receive a uniform, bat and ball, free of charge, and they follow a set of weekly drills with instructions provided by the league by way of a video that is sent out at the beginning of each week.
Players complete drills and can check off the skills they've practiced. They can also record their own videos and send them in for feedback or just to say hello to their teammates and coaches.
There is also a baseball bingo exercise that offers 25 drills to complete, such as "field 10 ground balls in a row," "practice pitching with someone in your household" and "run around your house three times, three days in a row." At the end of the eight weeks, players who have completed the bingo card receive a prize.
Bookman, whose 10-year-old daughter plays in the CGB league, said the response to the virtual league has been "overwhelmingly positive." She's optimistic about the impact it is having on young athletes whose sports lives have been upended as a result of the pandemic.
"It's also helping with their mental health and their sense of community," Bookman said. "It's much bigger than just baseball at this point. And also, hopefully, by it being free, we'll introduce more girls to the game."
Engaging youth baseball and softball players during this trying time has been a collective effort. Major League Baseball has been at the forefront of finding alternative methods to engage, including turning its signature "Play Ball" initiative into "Play Ball at Home." Kids are encouraged to create mini-drills and games within the comforts of their own surroundings.
For example, "Tee Time" uses a batting tee, plastic or foam baseballs and a bat. "Soft Toss" involves a plastic or foam ball and a bat and instructs kids to take turns "practicing your swing, while incorporating a moving ball, tossed by a partner from one knee, facing you, slightly to the front of your lead batting leg."
For "Home Run Derby," the instructions are simple: 1. Establish a home run boundary; 2. Set the batting order; 3. Swing for the fences.
Examples of MLB's efforts to engage youth during the COVID-19 pause are numerous. Here is a sampling:
MLB Youth Academies
MLB's many Youth Academies across the United States have been proactive in keeping their athletes engaged during this period of staying at home:
• The Philadelphia Phillies Urban Youth Academy is hosting weekly Zoom sessions with coaches and kids, and older kids are holding weekly Zoom sessions to mentor the younger kids in the academy. Additionally, the academy obtained hitting sensors to better track the kids' progress and development from afar.
• The Washington Nationals Youth Academy has set up weekly food bank allotments for academy families and people in the surrounding neighborhoods who are in need.
• The Cincinnati Reds Youth Academy is spotlighting two high school seniors at the academy each week, one in softball and one in baseball. The academy also is sharing USA Baseball coaches’ clinics with the academy coaching staff.
• The Kansas City Urban Youth Academy is hosting Zoom calls with competitive academy teams and has loaned Chromebooks to kids in need in order to assist with completing academic work. The academy is also coordinating "Wellness Wednesdays," creating workouts for the week. Academy staff and senior players are offering drill tutorials via Zoom.
• The Houston Astros Youth Academy engages in regular outreach phone calls to high school seniors and college players, in baseball and softball. Academy representatives are in regular communication with colleges about signing players, and they're also providing academy members -- juniors, seniors and college students -- with college scholarship information. Additionally, they're providing academy members with weekly quizzes about the game, “Diamond Demos” highlights from MLB Network and informative material from USA Baseball and USA Softball websites
• At the MLB Compton Youth Academy, weekly Zoom workouts are coordinated for team members five days a week. The academy is offering educational support on Zoom and FaceTime with an education coordinator and is helping girls and boys with applications for scholarships through the Rod Dedeaux Foundation. The academy also is helping team members with analyzing scouting information to better understand themselves.
• The New Orleans Youth Academy is coordinating weekly Zoom workouts with team members, hosting question-and-answer sessions about college recruiting with members and their parents, and is holding junior broadcast sessions every Thursday at 6 p.m. CT via Zoom.
MLB is in the midst of hosting a number of softball webinars over Zoom that connect young athletes with some of the most accomplished softball players in history. The lineup includes Jennie Finch, a two-time Olympian, former star player at the University of Arizona and current MLB ambassador; Natasha Watley, also a two-time Olympian and former star of the national champion UCLA softball team; and Lauren Chamberlain, the NCAA home run record holder and member of the 2013 Oklahoma national championship team. The three interact with athletes through online conversations that include question-and-answer sessions, as well as sessions that involve practicing and drills.
Giants host 'Junior Giants at Home'
A team-specific initiative is taking place in the Bay Area. To keep youth connected and active in times of isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Giants Community Fund announced the launch of "Junior Giants at Home," presented by Bank of America. The four-week virtual season provides youth ages 5-18 the opportunity to connect with other local players through live, team-based practices led by the fund’s team of AmeriCorps Ambassadors and the Giants’ coaching staff.
“Junior Giants at Home” was developed to continue the mission of the annual program hosted each summer. It aims to utilize baseball and softball as a way to introduce important lessons in education, health, bullying prevention and character development. Age-specific sessions are scheduled twice a week for 25-30 minutes and include indoor-friendly warmups, exercises and instructional training videos created by Giants manager Gabe Kapler and his coaching staff.
"Baseball and softball have had a profound impact on the lives of our coaching staff, which is why we're excited to partner with the Junior Giants and bring the values these leagues embody indoors while we can’t be with our teammates," Kapler said. "We wish every Junior Giants player a happy and healthy season and look forward to seeing everyone return to play soon."
Alyson Footer is a national correspondent for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @alysonfooter.