At a glance, it all seemed so normal. The crack of the bat, the sound of a baseball popping a catcher’s mit, coaches shouting directions at players and parents lined against the fence to support their child’s team and bark the occasional remark toward the umpire.
The scene at Parque de Vida in Cortez looked like any baseball tournament around the country during an ordinary year. But this is no ordinary year. It is a year in which sporting events and life as we know it ground to halt because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sports, like the rest of society, have begun to reopen, and so the new cases of coronavirus have again begun to surge. That is why Telluride opted July 15 to rescind approval for the wood bat baseball tournament for which it is the namesake.
But Cortez, a city in Montezuma County where county commissioners have defied the mask mandate put in place by Colorado Gov. Jared Polis and have refused to enforce the use of facial coverings in public places, jumped at the chance to bring the tournament to its public spaces despite seeing its total confirmed cases double since June 1.
And while it was a delight to indulge in the chance to once again watch a live sporting event, it was all too startling to see a public facility loaded full of adults who not only didn’t wear masks but didn’t even bring any kind of face covering to the park.
“At the other tournaments I’ve been to, it’s been required if you want to watch a game. You have to wear a mask at the field, or else you have to stay in your car,” said Durango senior pitcher Gage Mestas, who joined the Flat Bill Ducks 18U team out of Farmington for the tournament. “The Cortez tournament, not one person was there with a mask. I didn’t think that was quite safe. I guess the second wave is soon to come.”
Mestas has now played in five tournaments this year, as club and recreational sports haven’t been deterred by health orders that have slowed down organized sports on the professional, college and high school levels that are sanctioned by governing bodies that work more closely with state and national health officials. He has played in Denver as well as tournaments in Oklahoma and Texas, and what he saw at all of those tournaments followed much more strict protocols than Cortez, which displayed practically none.
It wasn’t completely for lack of effort on the part of the organizers from the Southwest Wood Bat Classics. Extensive protocols were laid out at the beginning of the week that applied to the camp held around, but still outside, Telluride in the lead up to tournament play.
But at Parque de Vida, the only posted rule was: “Absolutely NO Sunflower Seeds Due to Covid Guidelines.” Those signs were posted along the outside of the backstop fence.
Behind the fence, large groups of families sitting together, ignoring social distancing and the mask mandate in place in Colorado. Even the merchandise vendors were without face coverings.
It showed none of the precautions being taken by Major League Baseball, which relies heavily on ticket sales for revenue but has opted to leave stadiums empty this season in an effort to salvage a shortened season while keeping players, coaches and staff safe.
Perhaps that would not have been so bad if the all of the 33 teams across age divisions from 9 to 18 were local. But that was not the case. Teams from all across Colorado as well as northwest New Mexico, Arizona and even Texas were on hand. Athletes and families were came from hard-hit COVID-19 hotspots such as Phoenix and Shiprock, where cases have continued to spike since attempts to reopen in early June. Cortez itself sits only 40 miles from the Navajo Nation, one of the hardest-hit areas in the country with more than 8,750 cases, 434 deaths and travel restrictions and a curfew still in place.
One Arizona family took Telluride’s decision to not host the tournament as a signal to cancel the trip, even after it was moved to Montezuma County.
“We were concerned about Telluride hosting a tournament with teams from Arizona and decided that we weren’t going to go out of concern for our health,” Trey Newton said. “Telluride seemed to realize that when they decided to cancel the tournament over health concerns. But then we got notice that Cortez had agreed to host the tournament. Do the people of Cortez really want a ton of Arizona people in their town?”
While nobody at the tournament seemed very concerned about the pandemic, and it is true nobody was forced to be there, those with nothing to do with the tournament could encounter those folks in grocery stores, gas stations and restaurants throughout the weekend. Surely, they are not going directly from the diamond back to a hotel quarantine. Telluride could still be exposed, too, as several Arizona players said they were still staying in Telluride hotels.
As Mestas said, if Friday’s display was any indicator, the second wave is coming.
“I’m not concerned about playing the rest of the tournament,” he said. “But it gives me concern for the future of sports, for sure. I’m worried about what something like this will mean for fall sports.”
The nation is ready to get on with normal life. The desire for the return of sports at all levels is strong, even while a handful of states, including New Mexico, have already made the decision to postpone fall high school sports seasons. But if those who attend a youth baseball tournament right now can’t at least follow simple health orders, how can school sports expect to start next month?
It would go a long way to at least correct the optics so critics of the return of sports can see it is being done with caution and care. Many in the world of sports have strongly advocated for the use of masks to help football and other sports return this fall. If it is a certain politician demanding a mask you don’t like, maybe listen to what your favorite athlete or team
Yes, being at the ball field, smelling the outfield grass and watching a player leg out a triple was a beautiful sight. The tournament felt normal, and that was a wonderful feeling.
The problem is, the world is not normal right now, and that meant everything outside of the field was downright ugly.
John Livingston is the regional sports editor of Ballantine Communications. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter, @jlivi2.