On the turf at Blandair Regional Park in Columbia, Howard County’s senior baseball players got a sendoff to remember this week.
In an effort to recognize and celebrate a graduating class that lost its final high school season this spring to the coronavirus pandemic, the three-day event put on by Howard County Recreation and Parks provided players with a practice, two games and a senior recognition ceremony.
On Wednesday night, as the competition wrapped up under the lights, postgame handshake lines were replaced by tips of the cap to the opposing teams. Social distancing guidelines kept the fanfare and postgame festivities — outside of a handful photos — to a minimum.
But the overwhelming feeling as everyone retreated to their cars was one of success.
“The whole thing, from the practice to the senior ceremony to the games themselves, it was just truly special,” said Reservoir varsity coach Adam Leader. “The idea was we wanted the guys to have one last time on the field together and, for us coaches, selfishly I think we all wanted a chance to be around them one last time as well. It was great to get some closure after everything stopped so abruptly during the spring and it ended up being everything we hoped it would be.”
To simply be on the field surrounded by familiar faces was a big step forward for many.
“For most of us, being on a baseball field is as close to normal as it gets. So getting a chance to do this and have some fun, even if we do have to wear masks some of the time, it means a lot,” said recent Centennial graduate Zack Steen, who was a second-team All-County performer as a junior.
In all, there were 66 players, representing each of the 12 Howard County public schools, and they were split up into four teams. The Green squad featured players from Hammond, Marriotts Ridge and Reservoir; the Red team’s players were from Centennial, Howard and Oakland Mills; Blue had players from Atholton, Long Reach and River Hill; and Gold was made up of players from Glenelg, Mt. Hebron and Wilde Lake.
With the event not being affiliated with the Howard County Public School System, no school jerseys were worn and no school funding was used. Instead Brian Wyman, who is the Community Sports Manager for Howard County Recreation and Parks in addition to being the varsity baseball coach at Long Reach, took the reins in terms of getting things together.
“At first the thought was this was just going to be a play day with no parents, spectators or media or anything like that,” Wyman said. “But, by the end of June as restrictions started being lifted and we got word that there was the go-ahead on tournament play, we started thinking bigger. This whole thing really took off and I’m impressed by just how well everything came together with only about two weeks of lead time.”
Howard County executive Calvin Ball even made an appearance and spoke during the senior recognition portion of the event on Tuesday.
To make the logistics work, all participants were required to register for the event just like they would for any other program through recreation and parks. The cost for each individual was $49, which included a shirt and helped offset the costs of expenses like field rental, lights, umpires and balls.
All coaches — each school was represented by at least one coach — were required to be certified as Howard County Recreation and Parks’ Authorized Volunteers by becoming members of the Good Sports Coaches and Administrators’ registry ahead of time.
Additionally, all players and spectators in attendance were required to adhere to the same safety guidelines and protocol expected of any organization renting field space. From a safety standpoint, that meant no use of the dugouts or bleachers and each player’s equipment had to be equally spaced out on the fences down the foul lines.
None of those outside factors or stipulations, however, seemed to put a damper on the experience.
“I think they did a great job of making sure everyone was safe, while also not getting in the way of the games. I know things have been opening back up and people are seeing one another again in general, but for me this was just as much about getting a chance to be around everyone,” said River Hill graduate Casey Finkelston, who was a second-team All-County selection as a junior in 2019.
“I’m in a little different situation in that I have a little brother that has medical issues that puts him at a greater risk if he were to get the virus, so this was my first time seeing most of these guys in a few months. And considering I’m not going on to play in college, to be able to see them on a baseball field definitely lifted my spirits.”
As for the games themselves, they were played under a traditional high school format of seven innings. On Tuesday, Green and Blue squared off on one field, while Red and Gold played simultaneously on another. Wednesday, it was Blue against Red and Green against Gold.
But getting everyone involved in the games certainly trumped any results on the scoreboard. Each team’s lineup featured every player on the roster, as many as 17 players, instead of the traditional nine spots. Pitchers threw either one or two innings on one of the two days.
“Some guys are going off to play in college, some guys won’t be. For most of us, though, this will be the last time playing on the same field together and I think that’s what made this fun,” said recent Mt. Hebron graduate Magnus Dunn, who was the 2019 Howard County baseball Player of the Year. “It was a fun competitiveness. It wasn’t about the score or winning and losing as much as just getting a chance to play.”
That doesn’t mean there weren’t highlight moments.
Steen delivered a walk-off hit that scored Oakland Mills graduate Alex Stokes to help the Red team defeat Blue in the seventh inning Wednesday. Reservoir graduate Daniel Elliott had a three-hit day Tuesday, while Atholton graduate Zach Geesaman made arguably the best defensive play of the event with a putout from his catcher position on a swinging bunt Wednesday night.
There were also plenty of standout pitching efforts, including the quartet of Elliott, Conor Edwards (Marriotts Ridge), Tim Stryker (Hammond) and Adam Rodriguez (Hammond) pitching a combined shutout for the Green team on Tuesday.
In the end, though, it was the sentiment of the event that meant the most.
“These seniors have really had everything taken away from them this spring, all those special milestones that every high school kid looks forward to. We wanted something for them,” Wyman said. “In the grand scheme of things this was still something very small, but I feel like at the same time it was something huge for the kids and their parents in terms of what it meant to get back out here together one last time.”