In a city that proudly clutches to the staples of its culture, it’s going to take more than a global pandemic to cancel a 16-inch softball season.
The slow-pitch, gloveless game is synonymous with Chicago — up there in the cultural pantheon with house music, Malört and arguments over which Harold’s is best. And while the coronavirus forced the Chicago Park District to cancel the majority of their leagues, the top teams play on in nearby suburbs.
“It’s difficult, I’m not going to lie, but the people who love the game, we’re figuring it out little by little,” said George Bliss, a lifelong softball player who helps run the 16-inch Softball Hall of Fame. “If we have to play all the way to November or December when it’s snowing, we’re going to do it because we have to make up for lost time.”
The softball leagues operating in suburbs like Forest Park, Schaumburg, Cicero and Melrose Park are looking to the state for guidance as to whether it’s safe to play, Bliss said. Once Illinois entered Phase 4 of its coronavirus reopening plan, which allows for gatherings of 50 people or fewer, it was game on.
Softball, by nature, is more socially distanced than say, football or basketball. Aside from plays at the bases, there isn’t much reason for players to come in close contact with each other.
Still, Bliss said, the local softball leagues are taking precautions to ensure the players’ safety. Dugouts have been fenced off to encourage social distancing, and catchers and umpires are asked to wear face masks, while other players have been instructed not to shake hands or initiate contact at the bases.
These new rules were largely respected at a mid-August game in Forest Park. Fist bumps were more commonly exchanged than high-fives, and instead of sitting in the dugouts, players on the hitting team stood in foul territory on the field.
But old habits die hard, and the coronavirus precautions weren’t totally bulletproof. A few players could be seen spitting the occasional sunflower seed, and some catchers and umpires took the mask requirement more seriously than others.
So far, though, no players have contracted the virus and the season has gone on relatively smoothly, Bliss said, though a few longtime players and coaches decided to opt out of an abundance of caution. In the event that someone did get COVID-19, it would be up to the local league’s park district to decide how to move forward.
The players who have decided to power through with their seasons have noticed a few differences from years prior.
“There’s less people out here, we can’t be in the dugout and we have to try and social distance as much as we can, but other than that it’s the same game and the same cast of characters,” said Ralph Lawrence, shortstop for the Flashback.
About halfway through the season, most of the players have grown comfortable with the new normal and aren’t overly concerned with the risks associated with playing.
“At first everyone was a little bit nervous, but as time goes on you become more comfortable with things and understand what it’s about,” said Jim Moretti, who plays for Lose Ones. “I would say if you took a poll of most of the guys, I don’t think they’re nervous.”
Though the top teams in the Chicago area have pushed forward in the suburban leagues, they’ve had to miss out on the usual tournaments that would keep them busy through the summer. The biggest tournament of all, however, the Major Nationals on Labor Day weekend, went on in Highland, Indiana, where slightly relaxed coronavirus restrictions accommodated teams from Iowa and California, as well as Indiana and Illinois.
Amid all the changes, though, some things stay the same. Postgame beers in Forest Park are at McGaffers — just make sure you’re on the patio.