BY JIM PETERS
“We’re all told at some point in time that we can no longer play the children’s game, we just don’t … don’t know when that’s gonna be. Some of us are told at 18, some of us are told at 40, but we’re all told.” — Moneyball
One of the famous quotes from the movie about Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane has hit home for many high school seniors whose playing days weren’t ended by the standard baseball career markers — graduation, injury, a roster cut or retirement — but by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I know how big it was for me,” South Bend Clay coach Joel Reinebold said of his last prep game. “I was playing for my dad (Jim Reinebold). I stood out in the outfield and cried that it was over.”
The moment is etched in time for Reinebold, who went on to play at Mississippi College. In retrospect, he hurts for the seniors who are not getting any such closure this spring.
“It’s a tough way to end your career,” he said. “I can’t imagine.”
Reinebold and other coaches across Indiana are doing a variety of things to try to ease the disappointment of the lost 2020 season for their final-year players.
One of Reinebold’s endeavors is having individual signs made for his seniors and placing them on the infield with their jerseys under the lights of the diamond, which is named after his father.
“Just give them a little salute, hey, we’re sorry you don’t get to play, but thank you for everything you’ve done for three years,” he said.
Clay expected to have nine seniors this spring, four of whom are first-year players. Catcher-outfielder Mark Williams and outfielder-pitcher Jackson Jones would have been in their fourth year on varsity and Hunter Aker in his third. Other veterans were Miguel Penaloza and Tyler Williams. Aker, a first baseman-shortstop-pitcher, will go on to play at Manchester University, while Bethel University is looking at Jones, an outfielder-pitcher.
“Some are going on to college, some are done and it’s time to figure out something else to do, and some may realize with time that they’re not ready to get out,” Reinebold said.
The team last met on the final day of February for a conditioning session. After an initial two-week shutdown, there was hope for a return March 15. When it was bumped back again, teams held on to the prospect of an abbreviated season until that glimmer was snuffed out with the state’s shutdown for the rest of the school year.
“We can’t even meet,” said Reinebold, who is doing all correspondence via text. “We can’t do anything as a group. We can’t make them work out. I was trying to think of the last time we were together. It seems like forever.”
Hope springs eternal in March, when everybody is 0-0 with aspirations for greatness. With a whopping 11 seniors, Jimtown had high expectations for the season, led by shortstop Dustin Whitman, a four-year starter, three-year catcher Sammy Schwartz and outfielder-pitcher Brandon Coble.
“Most coaches are saying that now, but we really had our eyes set on moving the program forward,” Jimmies coach Cory Stoner said. “They’ve worked hard. They practice on their own. We don’t have to tell them what to do. It’s a tribute to them for taking charge. It’s a really close group that gets along. They’ve spent a lot of time together growing up.”
The day after the season was officially cancelled, assistant coach Jim Fredwell approached Stoner with the suggestion of turning on the stadium lights, piggybacking on a idea that has been done across the country as a symbolic tip of the cap to seniors.
“We both have little kids, so it seemed like a fun thing,” Stoner said. “A couple people stopped by (Booster Field). My college coach (Seth Zartman) lives down the road and he came down. It was pretty cool to see.”
Given the opportunity, Stoner hopes to do something more extensive this summer, kicking around the idea of a mock senior night with a cookout or, should the social distancing restrictions be eased back by then, possibly an intra-squad scrimmage.
“We’ve got a great group of seniors and we want to honor them in the right way,” Stoner said. “It’s just hard right now to plan much of anything.”
Stoner recently organized a virtual team meeting during which he let each of the seniors talk and their words warmed his heart.
“Clay Campbell was talking about how devastating this is, but we have to look at the big picture, that there are people who are hurting far worse,” Stoner said. “We try to preach selfless leadership, putting others first, and he’s one who really gets it. It was cool to hear.”
Goshen‘s five-player senior class will always hold a special place for RedHawks coach J.J. DuBois, now even more so due to the circumstances.
“I coached them on JV before varsity,” DuBois said. “This was my first group that I’ve had since they were freshmen. It’s a great group of kids, the perfect program guys. Goshen baseball doesn’t have a great history of success. We haven’t won a sectional since 2008. This was our best shot to sneak up on people like Northridge and Penn. We didn’t have a ton of varsity experience, but we have good talent. It was the perfect team for this year.”
DuBois is going to great lengths to honor his seniors in light of them missing out on the chance to fulfill their on-field aspirations. Among them, pitcher-shortstop Skylar Reyes, last season’s MVP, will play at Manchester, and Tommy Cartagena Garcia, who came to the school from Puerto Rico as a sophomore, is also looking at a couple schools.
“Losing their season, they’re so disappointed they don’t get to wear the RedHawks jersey one more time,” he said. “You want to give them things to remember, not just the wins and losses, but something special, fun things like dinner with the guys.”
It started with 20-minute Zoom interviews with each player in which they answered a variety of questions, both related and not related to baseball. Preview clips were posted on the Goshen baseball Twitter account with the full segments available on YouTube.
“They got to tell some cool stories that got them laughing,” DuBois said. “It was a good time.”
Borrowing an idea from basketball coach Michael Wohlford, who had posters done for his players, DuBois is in the process of having replica jerseys put in frames for each seniors. His hope is to hold a ceremony where they can gather the seniors and their parents to recognize them.
“Who knows with the timing,” he said. “We certainly have the room (to spread out) on a baseball field.”
NorthWood coach A.J. Risedorph has five players in his senior class — third-year regulars Jaden Miller and Cooper Davis, Josh Stratford, Jack Wysong and Kyler Germann — all of whom have been in the program since they were freshmen. Among them, only Miller (Danville Area Community College) is signed to play at the collegiate level, though Wysong is headed to DePauw University for tennis.
“We graduated a pretty good class, so I was more excited about the competition, the young guys who were going to step up,” Risedorph said. “That’s what sports is all about. They put in all the time and have been ready from day one. It’s very unfortunate. A lot of guys are struggling. We want to make sure they’re all right.”
With that in mind, Risedorph has a few projects in the works, starting off with social media posts. After doing some online searching, he’s looking into having personalized bats and replica jerseys done as senior gifts.
“My wife (Jenna) was talking about driving around to the homes and dropping them off,” he said.
The school’s baseball field doesn’t have lights, but Risedorph is thinking about getting the site game ready with bases, batter’s boxes and base lines, then painting the players’ numbers on the grass with the stencils used for football.
“Maybe we can do a drone shot,” he said. “We’d like to get them back out again. It kind of all depends on how long we’re shut down, as we get more information from the state.”
The missed season isn’t impactful on the seniors alone. Risedorph shared the story of junior Sergio Lira Ayala, who came to the school from Puerto Rico during his freshman year.
“He lives and breathes baseball, it’s all he cares about,” Risedorph said. “It’s his escape, with everything he’s dealt with. He just wants to be able to compete. I tell the juniors, you’re the seniors now. The standard of expectations is on their shoulders now.”
There’s no protocol, no manual, no reference for coaches on how to tell their seniors they don’t get to play their final season.
“There are guys who like to play and guys who love to play,” Fairfield coach Darin Kauffman said. “I have three of them it was really tough for. I felt awful for calling and leaving a message that we were done for the season. How do you do that? As coaches, it stinks, we want to play, too, but next year, we’ll be at it again. For the seniors, they don’t know if they’ll ever be on a field again and play.”
Of his seniors, just one, Felipe Arevalo, has a possibility of playing in college.
“He’d be really good for a JUCO for two years and go (to a four-year school) from there,” Kauffman said. “He called me right after (the season was cancelled). He was crying. He just loves the game. It was devastating to him. I felt bad. We were talking to colleges and they were planning on seeing him. Now they won’t be able to set up something.”
Kauffman has taken to doing social media posts with pictures of his seniors with write-ups that are going up one a day on the team page, as well as on the athletic department account, which is doing the same for the other spring sports.
“I’d like to have a thing, if we’re allowed to do it, on a nice day, in July even, where we could all meet at the field and recognize all the seniors for everything they’ve done, say some final words,” he said. “They worked hard in the winter. The guys were all for it.”
Fairfield didn’t bring back a great deal of experience after graduating 11 seniors last year, so it will now be in the same boat next season.
“I’m hoping the underclassmen can play at least a couple games,” Kauffman said. “If not, it’ll be almost two years. I don’t know what we’ll do. We won’t have a lot of seniors and it’ll be like really having two freshman classes. We have some young kids who wanted to travel.”
Kauffman has been staying busy with free online clinics and webinars.
“I sent out some things I want them to do, to try to keep their arms in shape,” he said. “Some kids have a back yard big enough to at least go out and do something, but everybody has a different dilemma. We’re all in the same boat on this.”
Follow Jim Peters on Twitter — @JP8185
The lights on Booster Field were illuminated to honor Jimtown High School’s Class of 2020, which did not get to play at senior season because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Teams all over Indiana are finding ways to say thanks to the seniors. (Jimtown Baseball Photo)