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Travel baseball booming despite spike in coronavirus cases

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travel baseball

A travel baseball tournament is held at Shipyard Park in Mount Pleasant on Friday, July 10, 2020.

It was a perfect day for baseball at Shipyard Park in Mount Pleasant.

With partly cloudy skies overhead and the Wando River serving as a backdrop, 15 teams from as far away as Illinois, Ohio and Mississippi descended upon the multi-field complex for a weekend of youth travel baseball.

Parents retreated to find the few shady spots still available around the ballparks, while siblings sat nearby munching on chicken fingers and french fries to pass the time between games.

A similar scene played out in North Charleston where teams from across South Carolina are competing in Dixie Majors and Pre-Majors state tournaments at Collins Park.

It was almost impossible to tell from the large gathering of people, many without face masks, that the country and the state are in the midst of a global pandemic, and that Charleston is one of the nation’s hot spots for new coronavirus cases.

While high school sports were halted because of the virus, and travel teams in soccer, basketball, volleyball and 7-on-7 football have been sidelined, baseball has continued to thrive across the Southeast.

Under executive orders issued by Gov. Henry McMaster two months ago, youth baseball teams were allowed to begin practicing on May 31 and got the OK to hold games and tournaments beginning June 15, as long as certain protocols are followed.

Kenny Wilkinson, who coaches the North Charleston Dixie Majors team, said safety measures are in force at Collins Park.

“Our seating capacity is normally about 1,600 and we have cut it down to about 450 because of the social distancing requirements,” Wilkinson said. “We only want families sitting together. We want them to wear masks. We are following all the guidelines, all the protocols that the governor has put out.”

The tournament at Shipyard Park was supposed to feature as many as two dozen teams, but several clubs decided to opt out due to the virus.

“The crowds have been normal pretty much all summer,” said Jason Murray, the general manager at Shipyard Park.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) considers baseball to be a “low risk” sport. Unlike soccer and basketball, there is very little contact between participants and social distancing is built into the game.

College of Charleston baseball coach Chad Holbrook was at Shipyard Park to watch his sons Cooper (16) and Reece (18), who have been taking part in travel baseball all summer. Both play high school baseball at Hammond School in Columbia but saw their season wiped out by COVID-19.

“Baseball is very important to Cooper and Reece,” Holbrook said. “They had to shelter in place for two months and missed their high school seasons and that was tough on them to not play the game they loved. Baseball is a great outlet for them. If they were not playing baseball, they’d probably be at the beach or at the lake hanging out with the same friends, so I don’t see a big difference.”

Reece, who has verbally committed to play at the University of North Carolina, is a member of the prestigious Canes U17 national team and has traveled to North Carolina, Georgia and Alabama for tournaments this summer.

Reese was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia as a young child but has been cancer free for years.

“Reece goes to one of the best pediatric oncologists in the country and he wants Reece to get out there and play baseball and do his thing,” Holbrook said. “That actually gave me comfort to know that I’m doing the right thing. Let your kid be a kid and let him go out there and be with his friends.”

Hogan Garner, a rising sophomore at James Island Charter School, plays for the local Diamond Devils U17 team.

“I’m not worried about the virus,” said Garner, 16, who has verbally committed to play for Clemson. “I missed playing. We missed almost the entire high school season and I just wanted to get back on the field.”

Garner’s father, Jerry, admits that he was a little more apprehensive than his son about playing this summer.

“We are obviously concerned about the virus, but we felt like the risks were worth it when we saw the precautions the Diamond Devils were taking to keep everyone safe,” Jerry Garner said. “They are trying to do as much as they can to keep everyone safe. So, do we think about the virus, sure. But when you’ve got a hard-headed 16-year-old son that says he’s playing, I guess we’re playing.”

The Diamond Devils have been one of the premier travel baseball teams in the Lowcountry for nearly three decades with alumni that have gone on to play in the Major Leagues.

John Rhodes, founder of the Diamond Devils program, said the club made a conscious decision to play in tournaments closer to home this summer.

“With everything that is going on and every state taking a different approach, I didn’t feel comfortable going out of state unless I knew what the rules were going to be,” Rhodes said. “If I didn’t feel comfortable, I felt like the parents were not going to feel comfortable. The kids probably would be like, whatever, they would play anywhere.”

The Diamond Devils usually play in tournaments in Nashville, Tenn., and Cincinnati, Ohio, each summmer. They opted out of those events this year, but will travel to Atlanta for a tournament.

“The NCAA has shut down all the (college) coaches being able to go out, so why do you want to travel to Nashville and be seen by nobody. You can stay here and be seen by nobody and save a lot of money.”

Rhodes said he has 167 players on nearly a dozen teams this summer. Only two players decided not to play.

With coronavirus cases spiking across the state, Rhodes, like many connected to travel baseball, is just thankful to able to spend a day at the ballpark.

“We feel very fortunate to be playing,” Rhodes said. “To be honest, I’m a little stunned that we’re playing.”

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