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Waiting to ‘Play ball!’ American Legion teams reorganize for month-long season if state OK comes through

Kennan Johnson, left, steps into his swing in the Negaunee Diamonds’ game against the Marquette Blues in an American Legion baseball contest played at Haley Memorial Field in Marquette on July 4. (Journal file photo by Ryan Spitza)

“We’re just planning as if (the governor’s stay-at-home order) will be lifted here, and then we’ll be ready to go.”— Justin Jurek, manager, Gladstone American Legion baseball

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ESCANABA — With the loss of the spring high school and American Legion summer baseball seasons, it looked like fields would lay fallow this summer.

However, on Tuesday eight Upper Peninsula Legion teams will attempt to create an Under-19 league for themselves.

The teams currently signed on are two from Marquette along with one each from Negaunee, Escanaba, Gladstone, Bark River, Menominee and Iron Mountain.

Currently, the league plans to open the season with a round-robin tournament June 19-21 in Escanaba and Gladstone. A championship game is tentatively scheduled about a month later on July 22 at a site to be determined.

Between those dates, Gladstone Indians manager Justin Jurek explained those games will be left up to teams to decide.

“So far, for the games in between the two tournaments, the head coaches are talking and arranging their own schedules,” he said. “As a group, (the coaches) have decided how the beginning and end tournaments are set up, but for the rest, we’re just kind of leaving it up to the coaches to schedule games as it works for them.”

The league will be run by the coaches of the eight teams participating, and they tentatively came up with the schedule they have now.

“Until the full stay-at-home order is completely lifted, we’re not really able to start games or anything, so we’re kind of waiting on that,” Jurek said. “We’re just planning as if that will be lifted here, and then we’ll be ready to go as soon as it is lifted.”

As far as attendance and what will be done to abide by social distancing guidelines, the coaches will leave those details until there is a definitive ruling on what will be allowed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

“We’re kind of just weathering the storm as far as getting a schedule and getting games prepared before worrying too much about how we’re going to go about having fans there or if they’re going to be allowed,” Jurek said. “For the detail stuff, we just figured we’d wait to hear more about the executive order and things like that.”

One unexpected impact to the Bark River Legion team is the loss of the use of their field.

“We’re kind of waiting on it,” coach Matt Richer said. “We’re having trouble getting on the field since our field is on a state park. We’ll probably be practicing on the Little League field until we sort things out.

“We may have to play the first few weeks on the road, but I think (the team is) excited to just get out and do something for a change.”

Athletes suffered a blow being unable to participate in a spring high school season, and the Gladstone Legion team particularly felt that sting as it won’t be able to defend its state title.

“I think it was pretty disappointing for our community as a whole to not be able to defend our state championship this year,” Jurek said.

Richer is electing to spend more time than he usually would on the basics due to the loss of a lead-in high school season.

“I also think we’re going to have to knock the rust off a lot more than we would have,” he said. “Normally, the kids come in after a few months of baseball, but now, some of them may have not hit a ball since last year. It’ll be a lot of fundamentals at first, instead of hitting the ground running.”

If the restrictions loosen, this U.P. league could present an opportunity for athletes and communities that are missing sports and sporting events.

“I think it would help everyone in the community — all the kids that just graduated and the incoming seniors,” Jurek said. “They lost all their spring sports, and it looked like they were going to lose their summer sports, too.

“For them to be able to actually have a season, even if it’s just 15 or 20 games, they can at least get on the field and get away from this whole situation. They can get back outside and get back to interacting and competing.”

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