There will still be competitive baseball in Guelph this year even though last month the Guelph Royals decided to take a year of absence from participating the Intercounty Baseball League.
The Royals were to have opened their IBL season Tuesday night at Hastings Stadium, but they opted to sit out the season citing the uncertainty of the whole coronavirus situation.
However, the Guelph Minor Baseball Association has teams slated to play in each division of the Inter County Baseball Association with Junior Royals squads in every division from 8U to 18U and the Guelph Silvercreeks, who fall under the GMBA banner, are to compete in ICBA’s 22U category. Including the Silvercreeks, the GMBA is to have 20 teams compete in the ICBA this season.
The eight-team Royal City Baseball League opened its season Sunday night at Larry Pearson Park and is to hold four regular-season games there every Wednesday and Sunday evening until August 22. The playoffs follow.
Weather permitting, the Silvercreeks are to open their ICBA season Wednesday night at Hastings Stadium against the Welland Junior Jackfish. Game time is 7:30 p.m.
Spectators will be allowed and there is no admission fee.
“We don't charge gates and the gate is open,” said Silvercreeks manager John Lannutti. “For us because we're not gate-driven, if we have 10 people, it's better than nothing.”
With no Royals this season and no competitive baseball in town last year, spectators might decide that the Silvercreeks would be the team to watch.
“It would be nice if they did,” Lannutti said. “If we have to get crowd control, that would be a good thing. Most of the time it's parents and families and friends and the local guys around the neighbourhood.”
Based on what they have learned from the Royals, the Silvercreeks understand that they’d be allowed 25 per cent of capacity of the Hastings Stadium grandstands and spectators would have to follow the health protocols which means social distancing.
The Silvercreeks, Royals and University of Guelph Gryphons reached a partnership agreement about a year and a half ago that allows players to move between the three teams. All three use Hastings Stadium as their home field. With that agreement, the Silvercreeks will have a few Gryphons on their roster for the 2021 campaign.
For the Silvercreeks, the shortened 2021 season brings a few changes. Due to their coronavirus concerns, they switched from the Central Ontario Baseball Association to the ICBA. As the league couldn’t begin play until Ontario entered Stage 2 of its reopening plan, the regular season was reduced to 12 games per team.
That total, though, could fall to 10 as Waterloo Region has not entered Stage 2 which means that the Kitchener Junior Panthers are not yet able to participate.
“We decided to go back to the Inter County Baseball Association more out of safety for the kids,” Lannutti said. “We were more afraid of the Toronto area, but now it's the Kitchener area. Basically we’re going to give it a try and go back under their umbrella and take it from there.”
Other teams in the ICBA’s 22U league are the Brantford Junior Red Sox, Hamilton Junior Cardinals, St. Thomas Tomcats and Stratford Nationals.
“It's a little less travel,” Lannutti said. “Some of the drives will be long, but at least we're hopeful that we will be playing ball.”
The switch to the 22U age category from the previous U21 age group might seem to be a result of the coronavirus, but it’s just a coincidence that it has happened at this time.
“I guess their turnouts for the 21 Nationals weren't too great so (Baseball Canada) decided to raise it to 22 and under so then Baseball Ontario came along and said 'Well, we'd better fight fire with fire.' It's a three-year trial and it just happened to coincide with this COVID,” Lannutti said. “They're going to try it for three years and see how it goes.”
With the situation in Waterloo Region, the ICBA’s schedules have already undergone a reworking.
“With the seven-team loop, we're going home-and-away against each one subject to, of course, weather and COVID,” Lannutti said. “We were actually supposed to play Kitchener in our first game, but when they got shut down we changed gears and Welland jumped in and took their place. Hopefully if it all works out we'll get a home-and-away with everybody.”
The ICBA’s playoff format has not been decided. If coronavirus protocol allows, the playoffs will be held in a tournament format with all seven teams participating. If that can’t happen due to health regulations, four teams will make the playoffs for best-of-three semifinals and the winners will compete in a best-of-three final.
Highlight of the season for the Silvercreeks and all the other 22U teams in the province is usually Baseball Ontario’s elimination tournament with the winner advancing the Baseball Canada’s national championship tournament. Both of those tournaments have been cancelled this year.
Other changes for the 2021 season include reducing the length of games to seven innings and pitchers being on a pitch count.
“They were concerned about arm injuries and now we have kids here who might not have thrown in six months or haven't thrown in a year,” Lannutti said. “They're all gung-ho, but we have to say 'Guys, take it easy.' It's just to protect arms. They see the injuries. They see the kid that's throwing bullets and then Tommy John (surgery). These kids have to live with these arms the rest of their lives.”
All of the new things this year, though, won’t dampen the enthusiasm for just being back on the field, something the Silvercreeks experienced when they started their practices.
“It was nice to get out there and have some practices and smell the grass,” Lannutti said. “It was weird.”