Major league baseball ran into a stop sign raised by labor issues. Minor league baseball was mowed down by the pandemic. Seasons for college and high school teams were cut off by the coronavirus.
Finally, baseball returns to the Richmond area Saturday with the Piedmont Collegiate League’s season-opener.
The wood-bat league includes four teams comprised mostly of players who attend Virginia colleges. It’s a particularly popular circuit in these pandemic times because most other college summer leagues were canceled for the year.
The five-year-old Piedmont League carries on because it is a pay-to-play organization that does not rely on ticket sales, plays exclusively in the Richmond area so health risks associated with lengthy bus rides don’t exist, and players reside in the region so they don’t need to stay with host families who may be concerned about coronavirus infection.
“The primary reason that most of the other leagues [suspended seasons] is they could see they were going to lose a lot of money if they operated without butts in the seats,” said Jeff Roberts, the Piedmont League president. “We’re ready to go.”
The league held its draft last Saturday and each of its 26-man teams worked out for the first time Monday at Legacy Park (formerly Virginia Sports Complex, in Caroline County). Additional workouts will be held Thursday, and opening day is Saturday at Douglas Freeman High School. Past Piedmont League seasons started earlier in June.
The season will last up to 24 games for each team.
Each player pays $650, which covers costs of administration, umpires, uniforms, facility fees, insurance, coaches’ salaries, and other needs. The coaches are college assistants and high school coaches. About 40 colleges are represented in the player pool.
“For the Piedmont League, this couldn’t be any better out of a bad situation because they’re getting a lot of guys that they’re not going to get normally,” said Tracy Woodson, the University of Richmond coach.
Richmond, VCU, William & Mary and Randolph-Macon are among the schools whose players are participating in the Piedmont League. While there will be no fans allowed for the time being, Roberts said he hopes the league will be able to open its gates to spectators (no charge) in July.
“We’re still trying to make sure that we can take care of our staff, our players, umpires and coaches … have enough room to spread out,” Roberts said.
Players will sit in the stands, and are required to bring their own equipment. No intentional contact is allowed. Social distancing is advised. Spitting is prohibited. The league cautioned players about licking their fingers before and after touching the baseball. Hand sanitizer will be available in dugouts.
“That’s why we just don’t want other people in the ballpark at this point,” Roberts said. “We want to be able to get the players accustomed to what this is going to be like.”
Coaches, players and staff members are encouraged to wear masks when they can’t maintain social distancing.
College players haven’t been involved in games since mid-March, when the coronavirus essentially shut down the sports world. When players return to campuses for fall practice, competition for positions and slots on pitching staffs will commence, presuming that can safely proceed.
Especially for young college hitters, “to get another  at-bats, or whatever they can get, against decent pitching, is huge,” said Woodson, referring to Piedmont competition. “It’s just what they need.”
The Piedmont League needed to turn away about 25 players because team rosters were filled, according to Roberts. The teams are named for local communities: Church Hill Patriots, Bon Air Barnstormers, Lakeside Sluggers and Tuckahoe Tigers.
Freeman High and Legacy Park are homes to games through at least the season’s first two weeks. Roberts projects that other area fields may become available later.