For baseball players, no feeling can quite replicate the one of opening day.
Unfortunately, local baseball players didn’t get to have that feeling this spring as the PIAA season was cancelled due to COVID-19. For nearly three months, players were left to work on their own with no certainty of when they would get back on a field.
This week, the first opportunity arrived and area players were happy to take advantage.
“I was full smiles the whole time,” North Penn junior pitcher/outfielder Sean Brennan said. “No matter if I struck out or not, which I did multiple times, I had a big grin the whole time knowing I was on a baseball field and playing baseball again rather than sitting at home.”
Prep Baseball Report’s PA State Games provided an outlet for players across the state to get back out on a diamond, showcase their skills and play in a pair of games all with college coaches taking watch. The three day event ran Monday through Wednesday in DuBois, Pa. and a score of area players made the long trip west.
Players were sorted onto one of 24 teams, which were then broken down into pods of four teams that participated in either a morning or afternoon session on of the three days of the showcase. The roughly eight-hour sessions included a timed 60-yard dash, batting practice, positional defensive workouts and finally a doubleheader of modified games with all players getting a chance to play.
“It was awesome, it’s been tough being stuck in the house the past few months so it felt great getting back out there,” Souderton junior Matt Benner said. “It felt right being able to get some swings in and be with a group of guys out on a field.”
Brennan played on Team 1 with Knights teammate RJ Agriss and was among the first group of players to get on the field Monday morning. As a two-way player, the junior was able to hit, play the field and pitch a couple innings to get the full experience.
While in-person attendance was limited, PBR offered a live stream at the two fields hosting the showcase and provided plenty of highlights and recorded statistics on its social media feeds throughout the event. Playing in front of a sparse crowd but knowing a lot of eyes were on them was an adjustment for the participants.
“It was in the back of mind there were a lot of people watching so I wanted to do well, but I was also out there to have fun,” Brennan said. “I’m sure it wasn’t the first day out on a baseball field for just me, so I’m sure other guys were feeling the same thing. I wasn’t going to be alone out there with being my first time back out.”
“I was very happy with the way it ran, I thought it went very smoothly,” Germantown Academy freshman infielder Aidan Zakarewicz said. “What I was most impressed with, I wasn’t very familiar with PBR because I haven’t done many events, but just the way they posted stuff and promoted all the players. I was very grateful for the way they promoted the players and put the names out there for the colleges watching.”
North Penn had nine players take part across all three days and plenty of Reporter/Times Herald/Montgomery programs were represented including Souderton, Central Bucks West, Pennridge, Abington, Germantown Academy, Spring-Ford, Perkiomen Valley, Dock Mennonite, Pope John Paul II and La Salle. Additionally, the Suburban One League was well-represented with athletes from Central Bucks South, Central Bucks East, Council Rock North, Council Rock South, Neshaminy, Bensalem, Pennsbury and Quakertown.
Most players still found ways to get work in during quarantine, but there’s no substitute for seeing live pitching or facing a live batter. Benner said it was a little weird at first given the long layoff, but added that it all came back pretty quickly.
“I had the same approach as any other event, just go out to play my hardest and do the best I can,” Benner said. “Seeing live pitching for the first time felt really weird, it’s completely different than cage hitting but getting out there and competing, it just felt great being out there again.”
A baseball field inherently promotes distance between players but safety and precautionary measures were still taken during the showcase. PBR limited batting practice to one player in the cage and one staff pitcher at a time, stretching was done spaced out and defensive groups rotated off the field as they finished.
Teams didn’t switch fields, instead playing a doubleheader against the same opponent to end their respective sessions. Spacious dugouts allowed players to spread out and the toughest thing was often breaking natural habits.
“A lot of guys had to stop themselves from giving high-fives,” Zakarewicz said. “It’s kind of silly to say, but that happens a lot in baseball, the fist-bumping and high-fives so it was limited to a minimum. It was weird, you’d go for a high-five or fist-bump like you normally would and you’d catch yourself or the other guy would catch themselves. It was watching a lot of the little stuff where it’s become second nature to you.”
In order to keep the games moving and to get the most opportunity for all players, the showcase used some modified rules. At the end of the day, it was still baseball and it was just another minor adjustment to make for the chance to play the game.
“There was a little bit of an adjustment,” Benner said. “Every count started 1-1, so it wasn’t a normal at-bat but just being out there and playing baseball is playing baseball to me, so I just tried to do the best I can with it.”
Zakarewicz missed fall ball due to a collarbone injury, so Tuesday was his first time in a competitive setting in almost a year. He wasn’t nervous, citing all the work he’s done on his own and off the field during the shutdown, but he was eager to see the results of that work.
The shortstop was pleased with his fielding, which also earned a social media shoutout and showed good numbers swinging the bat even if he was a little rusty in game action.
“The most difficult thing was the timing of my hitting,” Zakarewicz said. “Some of the competition I faced (Tuesday) was at a high level and it showed me the timing of my hitting is something I need to focus on moving forward. I’ve been working out a lot running and conditioning so I was also anxious and excited to see how I would perform there.”
Benner, who can play infield and behind the plate but is primarily an outfielder, was also happy with his numbers and overall showing.
“Putting in a lot of work over the break without any events helped my numbers get better,” Benner said. “I performed probably the best I’ve performed at an event like this. I got a lot stronger, I’ve been lifting a lot and gaining weight so I felt like I had more power and had gotten faster.”
For Brennan, a right-handed pitcher, Monday was a can’t-lose prospect of showing his defensive, offensive and pitching abilities. The junior called it a “starting point” and it gave him a baseline of stats for the year he hopes to only improve on as more showcases and tournaments start to return.
He added that showcase games often give players a minimal amount of time to get ready and he felt being a two-way player only helped his efforts Monday morning.
“I think I was prepared for it,” Brennan said. “For the past couple months, I’ve been working on dry mechanic work and I felt like I spotted up a lot more than I even have before. I had a lot more control over the ball and whether I’m throwing harder than I was or not, I can really locate the ball.”
With area teams closing in on a restart of team workouts after the PIAA’s guidelines released last week, players are looking forward to continuing to build off their showcase performances. There have been discussions amongst local high school teams to set up a round-robin tournament before the end of the summer and Benner said he hopes it’s able to come together so he and his Souderton teammates can get a chance to play together.
“PBR does a really good job of getting recruits in front of college coaches and with this being one of the first big events, props to them for doing such a good job of putting it together,” Benner said. “I’m just happy to be out on a field again.”
While Zakarewicz’s group didn’t include many players from the area, he was paying attention to Twitter and Instagram and was pleased to see so many good performances coming in from the local participants. It was a long day and a long drive each way for the players who took part, but one they felt was well-worth the effort.
Baseball rewards hard work and Brennan said self-motivation was what got him through the three months away from a field. A talk from PBR president Dan Cevette on Monday stuck with him as much as any pitch he threw or any swing he took.
“He said for many of us, it was our first time back on a baseball field and whether we did well or not, it kind of warmed the heart of a lot of people seeing baseball start to get back into a rhythm,” Brennan said. “Most of the kids out there, they’re die-hard baseball fans and getting back on the field will give them motivation seeing that baseball is starting back up again.”