Western Massachusetts sports activities groups put together to get again within the recreation after COVID
WESTFIELD – When the 2020 coronavirus pandemic crippled the area’s professional and advanced amateur sports teams, the Westfield Starfires baseball team did what many believed was impossible.
They played a full 2020 season. While other sports wait to come back and grapple with uncertainties, the Starfires prepare to build on a season others have lost.
“Last year we knew we wouldn’t play until we knew it was safe, but we wouldn’t cancel until we were told we couldn’t play,” said Donnie Moorhouse, co-owner of Starfires.
Other sports franchises have not been so lucky. The other college amateur baseball team in Hampden County is the Valley Blue Sox, whose 2020 season was lost when the New England Collegiate Baseball League canceled the schedule. The Starfires are part of the separate Futures Collegiate Baseball League.
Not only did the Springfield Thunderbirds ice hockey team see the premature end to their 2019-20 season, they also made the painful decision to end the shortened 2020-21 American Hockey League campaign.
The Blue Sox are optimistic for a full 2021 summer season. The Thunderbirds are looking ahead to fall and the opening of the next AHL campaign on their traditional schedule.
“We are already starting planning for the 2021-22 season. We’re still active, ”said Thunderbirds President Nathan Costa on January 4th as the team announced that they would not resume the game when the AHL returns this month.
“We looked at every street we could play on (early 2021). But without fans admitted to professional sports events in Massachusetts, it just wouldn’t work as this is our main source of income. “
“We are concentrating on the next season. Nothing will change in the long term. This gives us time to properly plan next season, tick all the boxes we need and get it right, ”said Costa.
“We’ll be back. The fans should know that for sure: We’re not going anywhere.”
The amateur starfires faced various, albeit related, obstacles last summer but held their own against the odds and played baseball safely. Team officials say this will give them momentum into 2021.
“We presented a COVID-19 preparedness plan early last year and worked closely with Westfield and state officials and the governor’s task force,” said co-owner Chris Thompson. “We had to use different protocols and procedures because the Futures Collegiate Baseball League operates in different states in New England, all of which are in different locations.”
The Starfires played at Bullens Field at a mandatory 25% fan capacity, providing baseball to local players who lost their high school or college season in the pandemic. Moorhouse said the 2020 teachings will serve them well in 2021, even as COVID-19 fades and restrictions are relaxed or lifted.
“You have to be ready to adapt. You have to be flexible and committed. We are moving at full speed (with sales and promotion) and know that we can withdraw at any time if necessary, ”he said.
The Futures League, believed to be the only college summer league in the country to play a full 2020 season, did not report any COVID-19 cases this past summer. The 2021 schedule will expand from around 40 to 68 games, creating more opportunities for groups, more signage visibility, and more innings for players.
“The Starfires are more than baseball. We want to connect communities and involve them in ways that have a positive impact, ”said Thompson.
Local host families were ready to accommodate players out of town during last year’s pandemic. The Starfires’ owners say they will do so again this season, which is set to begin on Memorial Day weekend. Bullens Field is currently being updated and a team mascot is being introduced.
The lack of most sports landed the Starfires on the New England Sports Network (NESN) for a game last season that would never have happened in a normal year – and that will help keep their momentum going through 2021.
“Last year wasn’t easy, but I think it was proof of the league and our organization. We stayed there and held out, ”said Moorhouse.
The Thunderbirds hurt to do the same. They brought the MassMutual Center in Springfield to life and revived pro hockey before the pandemic brought the 2019-20 season to a standstill.
Costa said management believes if fans are allowed to go back, their hunger for hockey will allow the franchise to pick up where it left off. If everything goes as planned, the T-Birds will play again in October.
Springfield management is pleased to be a member of the St. Louis Blues, an established National Hockey League franchise that won the 2019 Stanley Cup. The five-year membership should begin with the 2020-21 season. Whether or not that schedule will be extended remains to be seen, but the affiliations remain strong.
“When we thought about playing this season, we really wanted to do it for them. But the blues understood everything, ”said Costa.
The Blues Minor Leaguers will play for other teams this season, but will reunite at Springfield in 2021-22.
Why Springfield couldn’t bear the financial burden of a short season without fans while some AHL teams are playing is explained by the nature of owning a small league.
Some AHL teams are owned by NHL clubs that absorb large financial losses so that their young players can play. Independent teams like the Thunderbirds don’t have this resource. The Blues feed the players and a healthy relationship is afoot, but Springfield’s possession pays the bills.
This shortened AHL season is going to be strange anyway. The league has decided not to award a Calder Cup to the champion. The main purpose is to keep players on the ice.
The Blue Sox are planning a return this summer, but General Manager Kate Avard said most of the details won’t be known until late February or March. With a final NECBL schedule, the team continues to work with the Holyoke Parks and Recreation Department to ensure Mackenzie Stadium is available for training and home games.
“We are planning a regular season. We face a lot of challenges and the landscape is difficult this year but we are hopeful, ”said Avard.
One potential problem that the Blue Sox have resolved is the gamblers. Avard said a full list of talented college players have committed to play.
“They are all excited to have the chance to play again,” said Avard.
Other challenges still need to be addressed.
“We are holding discussions with our host families from previous years. Inviting players from the United States this year is a challenge for many. We respect all decisions, ”said Avard.
While the NECBL waits for a better idea of the landscape it will face in June, Avard said the Blue Sox is delaying promotions. Sponsorship is also an issue, but once the season starts, the team will do everything possible to give their sponsors the best possible insight, regardless of whether the team is allowed to have fans – most likely in reduced, socially distant numbers – or not.
“We hope for fans. We just have to wait and see, ”said Avard.
Despite all the uncertainties, nothing was ruled out. The goal of a traditional season with more than 40 games in June and July with playoffs in early August has not yet been achieved.
“We also hope to do more clinics with players working with local youth,” Avard said. “We need the green light to implement our plans, but we are optimistic.”
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