There are no fields of dreams in Manitoba this spring, only pipe dreams of bustling fields.

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This article was published 24/4/2020 (550 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

There are no fields of dreams in Manitoba this spring, only pipe dreams of bustling fields.

Amateur athletes of all ages have been effectively barred from soccer pitches, baseball and softball diamonds, rugby and lacrosse fields, gymnasiums and all variety of courts, from basketball to squash, because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Baseball on hold

The Manitoba Junior Baseball League is juggling a few tentatives schedules for the 2020 season but won't take the field until the play's called safe at home.

"No one wants to go against any of the guidelines, even by holding practices or anything like that. It's not about the sport, it's about the public safety," league president Jamie Bettens said this week.

Normally, MJBL teams would start working out at their respective ball parks in Winnipeg, Stonewall, Steinbach, Altona and Morden, eagerly waiting for the cream of the crop to return from U.S. colleges and join their respective squads. The season usually begins with 'double-header day' the second weekend of May.

The Manitoba Junior Baseball League is juggling a few tentatives schedules for the 2020 season but won't take the field until the play's called safe at home.

"No one wants to go against any of the guidelines, even by holding practices or anything like that. It's not about the sport, it's about the public safety," league president Jamie Bettens said this week.

Normally, MJBL teams would start working out at their respective ball parks in Winnipeg, Stonewall, Steinbach, Altona and Morden, eagerly waiting for the cream of the crop to return from U.S. colleges and join their respective squads. The season usually begins with 'double-header day' the second weekend of May.

But owing to the COVID-19 crisis, Baseball Manitoba has suspended all sanctioned activities until May 30, at the earliest.

"We've had meetings as an executive and have tentatives schedules for a June 1 potential start date and a June 15 date. We have every intention of playing if the environment is safe enough and allows us to do that," said Bettens.

The league will grow by one with the return of Winnipeg South, upping the field to eight. The team joins the two-time reigning MJBL champion Elmwood Giants, St. James A's, St. Boniface Legionaires, Interlake Blue Jays (Stonewall), Pembina Valley Orioles (Morden), Altona Bisons and Carillon Sultans (Steinbach).

Nearly 12,000 people, from age four to 50, play baseball in Manitoba.

The coronavirus has altered the evening and weekend routines of families from coast to coast.

Here, thousands of participants have their cleats, gloves and rackets packed and ready to go for the spring and summer seasons, but organized sports are on hold until local health officials deem it safe to begin again.

Most of the sports authorities in the province have pushed things back to June 1, at the earliest.

Ethan Hogsden, 15, is an elite soccer player in Winnipeg who normally trains with his Winnipeg Phoenix (under-17) teammates and coaches four times a week in April. He's already lost a chance at a championship due to the sudden stoppage of the indoor season last month, and now waits out a suspended start to the spring/summer campaign.

While the Murdoch MacKay Collegiate student is anxious to be back on the pitch, he understands the importance of staying home as much as possible and avoiding crowds.

That doesn't mean he has to like it.

"It sucks we're not playing," he said this week. "I miss the competition and seeing my friends, challenging myself every day. This year, my (indoor) team finished first, but because of the virus we never got to finish our season. We worked really hard and finished first but playoffs got cancelled, so we never got to win the trophy."

Ethan Hogsden, 15, is an elite soccer player in Winnipeg who normally trains with his Winnipeg Phoenix (under-17) teammates and coaches four times a week in April.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Ethan Hogsden, 15, is an elite soccer player in Winnipeg who normally trains with his Winnipeg Phoenix (under-17) teammates and coaches four times a week in April.

Ethan is one of the more than 10,000 members of the Winnipeg Youth Soccer Association, currently sidelined through the end of May on the direction of Manitoba Soccer, Canada Soccer and the appropriate local health authorities.

But optimism remains high among sports leaders across the province, including WYSA executive director Carlo Bruneau, that some semblance of a season can be played, even if it isn’t exactly normal.

"Everyone's been dealt these cards, every facet of society. We wish we were playing tomorrow, we wish we would have been practising already, but at the same time we're very optimistic about getting back on the field and the role we play in society," said Bruneau. "We'll continue to adapt our plans as we go along. Whatever type of season we're able to offer this summer, we will.

"We're not advocating for any premature lifting of restrictions. We certainly want to make sure our athletes, our coaches, our referees, our administrators, our conveners and our parents on the sidelines are safe to participate once we get that green light."

Nearly 9,000 people in the province would be nearing a start to the fast-pitch or slo-pitch seasons but won't hear umpires shouting, 'Play ball!" for at least a month.

"Everybody's ready to go right now," said Don Klym, executive director of Softball Manitoba. "We've shut down all operations, development programs and competition to May 31, and we continue to review that. We try and update our membership every two weeks. Everything's on lockdown and (we) would love to get out there but we're following the public-health guidelines and just the common sense of it all."

Amateur athletes of all ages have been effectively barred from all variety of courts.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Amateur athletes of all ages have been effectively barred from all variety of courts.

Some organizations have already incurred costs for things such as facility rentals, uniforms and new equipment, and many families have already ponied up registration fees.

There will be a hit to the financial books with the cancellation of the winter championships and spring startup. The WYSA had already completed about 90 per cent of its registration, and might have to begin the entire process over again as still-families grapple with the decision to allow their kids to participate after the pandemic.

Bruneau said registration fees will be adjusted if the outdoor season has to be shortened.

But the financial impact from the hiatus will be more than an inadvertent boot to the shins for organizations such as the WYSA and Softball Manitoba.

"For softball, it would be a huge blow. Financially, we'd lose a huge percentage of our revenue, which we would normally put all right back into the sport. So, we wouldn't be expending those programs. It would definitely hurt us financially because most of our revenues from participant fees goes right back into the programs we offer, like our coaching and umpire programs and our provincial championships," said Klym.

With the shutdown of minor sports — empty arenas, community centres and gyms — there's an obvious ripple effect, said Jeff Hnatiuk, president and CEO of Sport Manitoba.

"Sport is a major employer and an economic driver not only in Manitoba, but the rest of the country." – President and CEO of Sport Manitoba Jeff Hnatiuk

"Sport is a major employer and an economic driver not only in Manitoba, but the rest of the country," he said. "Look at the shutdown of sports that are club-based, facility-based and the impact on those facility owners. There's a huge net that's cast, and the impacts the coronavirus is having at so many different levels.

"Spring and summer sports are impacted right now. We're getting into May and some of the winter sports are starting to look at their planning. What does their potential season look like?"

Sport Manitoba closed its public spaces at the Sport for Life Centre on Pacific Avenue — fitness centre, gymnasium, high-performance training facility and the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame — in mid-March when health officials advised against gathering in groups, necessitating about 24 temporary layoffs.

"Most of those staff are related to those public areas that are closed off," said Hnatiuk. "It's our intention that once we get through this, those people will be brought back because those are key people to the delivery of programs."

Meanwhile, the province’s largest multi-sport event hangs in the balance. The Manitoba Games, bringing together more than 1,800 young athletes and coaches, and another 1,000 volunteers, is scheduled for Aug. 9-15 in Dauphin.

"We're looking right now and working with the host society and other partners; we haven't made a decision yet, but we'll likely have to make a decision over the next two to three weeks on those games," said Hnatiuk. "They have a big impact on the host community and also the athletes participating. We don't know what we're doing there but it's top of mind for us."

The Manitoba Junior Baseball League is juggling a few tentatives schedules for the 2020 season but won't take the field until the play's called safe at home.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The Manitoba Junior Baseball League is juggling a few tentatives schedules for the 2020 season but won't take the field until the play's called safe at home.

As some Manitobans struggle with temporary job losses owing to the health crisis, the affordability of youth sports is now in question for some families. Some parents may reconsider letting their children participate in team sports, where keeping a distance and avoiding contact is unrealistic.

Bruneau said when the time comes that Manitobans can leave their homes and minor sports can resume their schedules, it will be important for organizations to convince parents why sport is one again a safe, healthy haven for their kids.

"Every individual is going to have a different level of comfort. That's why it's important for us, once we do have a green light, to communicate what our parameters are and why we think it's OK to go ahead, based on the advice of medical experts, Sport Canada, Canada Soccer and Manitoba Soccer, and give parents and participants the choice on whether they feel comfortable," he said.

For now, all young athletes such as Ethan can do is remain as patient as possible, train at home and keep a positive attitude.

"We live close to the Transcona trails, so me and my dad jog when it's nice out, and in my garage I do foot skills, kick the ball around, just trying to stay active," he said. " I have a lot of homework to do. I'm actually supposed to start driving this summer but my driving lessons got cancelled. It's been frustrating not being able see my friends. I don't visit my grandma but I FaceTime every day to keep in touch.

"I'd just love everything to get back to normal for the summer."

jason.bell@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @WFPJasonBell

Jason Bell

Jason Bell
Assistant sports editor

Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).

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