Baseball is usually a sign of spring and harbinger of summer.
In the time of the new coronavirus pandemic, the return of the game takes on an entirely different meaning of rebirth as high school players who had their senior baseball seasons canceled at school get to retake the field for the first time.
Today, the Alaska 20 travels to Bartlett High School in Anchorage for a 1:30 p.m. game against South and 4 p.m. contest against Service.
“Everything is the same on the field, but everything is different off of it,” said Mose Hayes, a 2020 graduate of Homer High School.
While baseball is still baseball, the pandemic has changed so much surrounding the team.
Start with the name. The Alaska 20 was formerly known as the American Legion Twins, but American Legion has canceled its leagues this summer due to the pandemic.
The Alliance for Support of American Legion Baseball, a nonprofit not tied to American Legion, stepped in to organize a season for players ages 13 to 19 that will resemble the normal Legion season. The season can have no connection to American Legion, so Alaska 20 has a new name and new uniforms.
There will be 14 teams in the league, with Sitka, Ketchikan and Kodiak not fielding teams.
Robb Quelland, the head coach of the Alaska 20 after seven years heading up the Twins, said getting new uniforms was just one of many things that had to come together quickly when the Alaska 20 decided May 22 to play this season.
“The challenge has been getting the field ready, equipment, uniforms,” Quelland said. “Things we normally would have been able to take care of months ago but we didn’t know if we’d be playing.”
Quelland, also the coach of the Soldotna High School baseball team, said all the work was worth it. The coach gave credit to general manager Lance Coz as well as coaches Ken Gibson, Mike Hayes and Cody Quelland for getting Alaska 20 ready to play.
“One of the biggest regrets is my seniors,” Quelland said of SoHi 2020 grads. “The players from Homer, Kenai and Soldotna didn’t get a chance for one more year of baseball.
“You never know when you’ll play your last game of baseball, but you don’t expect it to be the last game of your junior year.”
Hayes is one of those players who missed his senior season. In baseball, he was all-Southcentral Conference his sophomore and junior years. Last summer, he made the American Legion Team of Excellence as a starting pitcher.
A few months ago, Hayes signed to play baseball at Yuba College in California. That softened the blow of his senior year of baseball getting canceled, but Hayes is excited for the Legion season and the valuable experience of about 30 more games.
“I’m super thankful for everyone putting this together,” he said. “Not having to go down there after missing a whole season of baseball is super helpful.”
Sam Berry, a 2020 Nikiski graduate, also missed his senior season of baseball. Berry played for Kenai Central since Nikiski does not have a baseball team.
Berry, a first-team all-Peninsula Conference player at defensive back, was originally going to pursue football in college. The first few spring baseball practices with the Kardinals, right before everything was canceled, changed his mind. Berry had never played for the Twins, but joined the Alaska 20 in hopes of playing baseball in college.
“I’m really excited for this,” he said. “I think this will be perfect for getting ready for college, because the players there will be really good.”
After losing a high school season to the coronavirus, players and coaches are well aware COVID-19 is still a threat. Alaska 20 currently has 15 players on the team.
“If one of us gets it, the whole season could be shut down,” Hayes said. “We all know that.”
Players have a temperature check before each practice and are asked if they are having symptoms of COVID-19. Hands are sanitized a few times during practice or games. Players can’t share food, water or most equipment. Bats can be shared, but must be sanitized between innings.
The team will travel together in vans, so masks will be required during travel.
“We’re just making sure we’re covering all the bases for the safety of the players and the fans,” Quelland said.
The coach said it’s hard to know how many fans will show up, but Alaska 20 will have to make sure the facility is safe for them.
Normally, the Twins draw players’ parents and a few friends to the game. Area baseball fans flock to see the Peninsula Oilers play, but the Oilers have canceled their 2020 season. Kenai and Soldotna Little Leagues also are not playing in the spring or summer, instead shooting for a fall ball program.
Even on the national level, Major League Baseball still has no definite plan to return this summer.
“I think the passion for baseball itself is huge and as of right now we’re the only show in town,” Quelland said. “The crowd that likes baseball may want to get out.
“We’re excited to put a good team on the field.”
Only the first part of Alaska 20’s schedule has been released. This first part runs through June 22 and has all nonleague games to help the players get back into shape.
There is no home opener scheduled yet for Alaska 20. The team will not use Coral Seymour Memorial Park — the normal home for the Oilers and Twins — instead using the Kenai Little League fields or the Soldotna baseball fields. Games in Homer are even possibilities.
“That’d be super cool,” Hayes said. “I’ve never gotten to play a game there for this team. It’s 70 miles just to get to practice.”
Quelland said Hayes will be a leader for Alaska 20, serving as the starting shortstop and No. 1 starting pitcher.
Tanner Ussing, a 2020 graduate of Soldotna, will also bring valuable experience at catcher, pitcher and infielder. Harrison Metz, who will be a senior at Homer, will be a key pitcher and infielder.
Alaska 20 also gets valuable experience from 2020 Soldotna graduate Davey Belger at center fielder and pitcher, and Berry at pitcher, first base and outfield.
Quelland said the key this season will be getting young players up to speed.
“A lot of the young players are coming into their own and working really hard in the programs they are in,” the coach said. “We have quite a few from Homer, Kenai and Soldotna. They’re all excited. It’s a work in progress.”
A roster released Monday also had Jacob Belger, Warren Cooper and Atticus Gibson from Soldotna; Harold Ochea, Nick Wehrstein and Jackson Duperron from Kenai; and Zavier Hayes, Jonathon Gregoire and Charley Tappan from Homer.