This wasn’t your typical Manitoba Junior Baseball League Opening Day.
In a normal year, the eight-team southern Manitoba league kicks things off in early May when the weather is as unpredictable as a knuckleball. That wasn’t the case Sunday when the MJBL opened the season, seven weeks later than usual owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, with every team playing a doubleheader in over 30 C heat.
But nobody was complaining: these guys were just happy to be on the diamond. One of the happiest was Altona Bisons pitcher Connor Cory, 17, as he’s using the MJBL season as a way to work on his craft before he heads south to play at North Dakota’s Mayville State University in the fall. Cory pitched a gem in the late game as he led Altona to a 2-1 win over the St. James A’s at Optimist Park. Altona beat St. James 9-2 in the opener.
"Usually most of us are starting to play ball in early May. Some people start practicing in April. A lot of us are planning on playing in post-secondary school and we were all getting worried about if we were going to get enough reps in (before school), would we get there and be completely cold? So, it’s just awesome to have a league as high-calibre as this before we head down there," Cory said.
For Altona skipper Curt Letkeman, this year’s Opening Day will definitely be one to remember.
"I think it’s more special given everything we’ve had to go through. Starting later in the year, the temperature was obviously much nicer than what we’re used to starting in mid-May. But the guys have been waiting a long time to get out here and play some real competition," Letkeman said.
"It was a little rusty given that we haven’t faced live pitching in a while, but guys battled, pitchers threw well and it was fun."
St. James manager Bill Dauphinais shared a similar sentiment.
"It’s a little bit different. We haven’t had much time to prep for the season or anything like that so we’re a little bit rusty out there. Other than playing a month and a half behind schedule, playing our first game in plus-32 is unheard of so it’s kind of a different atmosphere for an opening day," Dauphinais said.
Yellow caution tape was placed six feet apart along the fence to remind spectators to stay at a distance, players were asked to space out a bit in the dugouts, and teams can only handle their own baseballs. To the casual observer, it looked like an ordinary baseball game and you’d never know it was being played in the middle of a pandemic.
"Everybody is happy to make whatever adjustments are required to make the game playable," Letkeman said.
"If those are all it takes to get us playing, everybody will be fine with that."
Cory added, "It feels like it’s been a while, that’s about the only real difference."
A couple of months ago, the status of the 2020 MJBL season was a big unknown. But Letkeman remained hopeful that they’d eventually hear the words "Play ball!"
"We were hopeful. I think the provincial government has done a fantastic job of keeping everything safe, keeping the cases low," said Letkeman.
"The return to play document that Baseball Manitoba put out was very protective and it was good. So we all hoped and were cautiously optimistic given what we’ve seen with the COVID numbers in Manitoba and I give credit to the government for being preventative, being on top of things and we can thank them for being out here today."
A 2-0 start to the season is nice, but Cory said the best part of Sunday was getting to do something that resembled "normal."
"Looking at the craziness that’s been this year with all the COVID closures and everything that’s happened, to have something to say ‘OK I can focus on this and not worry about anything else’ is so nice. It’s just so nice to get away from everything, even if there are different rules it’s just awesome you can go out and enjoy a ballgame on a Sunday," said Cory.
Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.
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