A few months after the coronavirus pandemic shut down virtually all sports in March, the Minor League Baseball season was canceled before it even began. But it wasn’t just the pros who were affected; seasons were cut short for hundreds of thousands of high school baseball players, including seniors whose careers came to an end before they knew it.
And while little can be done to make up for an entire spring’s worth of cracks of the bat, balls hitting mitts and memories made among friends, some out there are trying to help those affected recapture as much of that glory as possible.
On Aug. 1, the Salem Red Sox -- the Class A Advanced affiliate of the Boston Red Sox -- hosted “The Last Inning,” an exhibition doubleheader that allowed 63 area seniors to play one final game alongside their high school teammates. Players were pulled from 21 schools in the Salem-Roanoke area and took the field together one last time at Salem Memorial Ballpark.
The idea came about not long after the wave of cancellations began to sweep across the Salem area and the country as a whole. While most of the team’s staff’s attention was directed at the fallout of the shelved Minor League season, general manager Allen Lawrence was approached with a unique suggestion from an unlikely source: head groundskeeper Joey Elmore.
“He came to me … and he said, 'Hey, if they're not able to restart, here's an idea.’ And I was like, 'I love it!'” Lawrence said. “I love all our groundskeepers that have always worked with us, but it's not typically the groundskeeper that's coming to you with such a great idea.”
Lawrence immediately was on board, but given the nature of the pandemic, there was little the Red Sox could do other than wait. It wasn’t until sometime in June when the gears began to turn, as restrictions on public gatherings began to ease and the team was able to take the first steps toward making Elmore's suggestion a reality.
But as the restrictions began to be lifted, the biggest hurdle quickly became not how to get fans into the ballpark but how to get players into the dugouts. With school not in session, it became much more difficult to get in contact with area players and fill out rosters.
“We knew that that was probably going to be our biggest challenge, right, was rounding up all of these high school seniors,” Lawrence said. “Because we've got a lot of high schools in our area, we were able to pull from 21 different high schools. But during the summertime ... how do we get all of these seniors to come together?”
Enter Gary Walthall.
Lawrence serves on the board of the Salem-Roanoke Baseball Hall of Fame with Walthall, the retired longtime baseball coach and athletic director at nearby William Byrd High School. Through that work and his role with the Hall of Fame, he has contacts at just about every school in the area. With his help, Lawrence got the ball rolling.
"It was a lot of work on his end, but at the same time, he had all the contacts,” Lawrence said. “So all the hard things were in place -- now we just needed to execute it."
After talking with athletic directors and coaches, the player pool began to take shape. The Red Sox used the same parameters the Salem-Roanoke Baseball Hall of Fame utilizes to award its annual scholarship, encompassing a large area in and around the cities. That way, nobody in the area felt left out.
"We didn't want to have to tell anybody that reached out to us that their kid couldn't play,” Lawrence said. “So that was kind of the stance that we took. We said, 'We're going to draw from this geographic region, the same one that we draw for the Hall of Fame here locally, and apply it to this game.’"
The next step became sorting out the logistics. People are generally less busy now than they were pre-pandemic, but there was still much to consider. Primarily, the Red Sox had to factor in the schedules of players shipping off to college at the end of the summer along with the fact that their schools may have required them to quarantine for a period of time before classes begin.
After taking all of those things -- and many more -- into consideration, they settled on Aug. 1, a Saturday. That provided ample time for players to safely depart for college while giving the Red Sox plenty of time to prepare things on their end.
“We got this date on the calendar and we kind of just went with it from there,” Lawrence said. “And we said we're going to plan this event on this date and really just keep our fingers crossed that the COVID restrictions put in place by the State of Virginia don't prohibit us from having this event."
The final piece of the puzzle was put in place with help from the team's sponsors. The four companies -- Coca-Cola, Kroger, American National Bank and Guelich Capital Management -- played pivotal roles in providing the best experience possible for the players and their families.
"They allowed us to not charge for this event,” Lawrence said. “It was a free event for people to come into. And that was really a position that we wanted to take. I didn't want to charge families and other students an admission fee to come in and watch their child or their classmate or their neighbor, whatever the situation may be, play in this game.”
Before long, the calendar flipped to August and it was finally game day. The players attended one practice in the days leading up to the game to tune up, but also to learn the health protocols to which they had to adhere. The most obvious rule: no sunflower seeds or gum to avoid spitting. But players also were prohibited from sharing equipment and were given hand sanitizer and the opportunity to sit in an extended dugout in the stands to better social distance between innings.
On a greater scale, Salem prepared to use a backpack sprayer to sanitize the dugouts between games in addition to spraying bathrooms, handrails and other common areas throughout the day. The team also prepared health and safety messages to be displayed repeatedly on the video board, including the recommendation that everyone in the crowd wear masks.
With everything in place, it was time to play ball. The games were both competitive -- the first ended 13-9 and the second 6-4 -- but, more importantly, gave the players the kind of closure they missed out on months earlier.
And while that was very much appreciated, the biggest highlight actually came between games. The players were upset to lose the chance to see the field one last time, yes, but what may have upset them more was missing out on the Senior Day recognition that normally would’ve tied up their careers at the end of the season.
Aware of that, the Red Sox made sure they got that opportunity.
"It was important to us from the beginning to be able to replicate [Senior Day] as much as possible for them,” Lawrence said. “We knew that no matter what we did, it wasn't going to take the place of their senior year of high school, but we felt like for this one particular day, we could really make this special. And doing this replication of Senior Day with the family recognition was kind of one of the ways to take that to the next level."
Brady Kirtner, a right-handed pitcher from Christiansburg High School committed to play next year at Virginia Tech, expressed his gratitude over getting the recognition he and his classmates missed out on.
"I really liked that,” Kirtner said. “That was very special to be able to talk about all the seniors and talk about where they're going and what they had accomplished and stuff."
It wasn’t only the players who cherished the experience. It also proved emotional for their families, as each player walked alongside his parents or other relatives as he received acknowledgement for his accomplishments over the past four years.
That element, according to Lawrence, might’ve made the ceremony the climax to the festivities.
“That was probably the peak of [the day]. ... A few of the parents that I spoke to, that really seemed to be kind of that special moment to them,” he said.
While the Red Sox came up with the idea on their own, they’re not the only Minor League team doing something like that to help local seniors affected by the pandemic. The Lynchburg Hillcats, the Class A Advanced affiliate of the Indians, hosted a pair of similar games for seniors from different school districts in the area. The Akron RubberDucks, the Indians' Double-A affiliate, had a “Senior Spotlight Series” that brought a handful of teams to Canal Park. The Class A Short Season Hudson Valley Renegades, a Rays affiliate, assembled their own “Bottom of the 9th Tournament” that included several local teams and players.
Looking back on the Red Sox event, Lawrence said he and his staff were happy to get back to some sense of normalcy and organize what felt like a pre-pandemic game day. More than anything, however, they were delighted to provide a wholesome, heartwarming experience for the community, one that rivals any baseball game they’ve hosted.
"It was great,” Lawrence said. “I've been here 19 years, and honestly, I'd be hard-pressed to think of many days in my 19 years that were better than that day.”
And moving forward, the seniors involved will never forget the experience and what it meant for them, their families and their teammates.
"I'll always remember that,” Kirtner said. “It'll always be with me, knowing that I had that one last game to be able to go out and play with my fellow teammates and knowing that we could just get out there for one last time together."
Jordan Wolf is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter: @byjordanwolf.