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Play Ball!

Adirondack Lightning U14, U20 teams start season with new rules in place

Adirondack U14 catcher J.J. Ledwith scores a run during action Monday against the Champlain Cougars in Lake Placid on the varsity diamond at the North Elba Show Grounds. In addition to the Cougars’ catcher, also pictured are plate umpire Dale Hayes and U14 head coach Chadd Cassidy, in the background. News photo — Andy Flynn

LAKE PLACID — Rik and Linda Cassidy sat in their car Monday evening, July 6 — windows open to enjoy the fresh air and sunshine — and watched their grandson catch a fly ball to the right of second base at the Lake Placid Central School ball field.

Sheldon Cassidy, 14, will be a freshman at the Lake Placid High School in the fall. He plays on the Adirondack Lightning under-14 team with 14 other students — ages 12 to 15 — from around the Tri-Lakes region. His father Chadd coaches the team.

“So I’m a little prejudiced,” Rik said.

Monday’s game was the first on these fields since last summer, before the coronovirus pandemic hit in March. Middle and high school spring sports were canceled as COVID-19 precautions were instituted statewide, but on Monday, many low-risk recreational and sports activities were allowed to resume, including youth baseball. 

The game against the Champlain Cougars helped satisfy Rik’s hunger for baseball, especially since Major League Baseball spring training was cut short on March 12.

“I can’t wait for Major League Baseball to start up,” Rik said. “But this age is so fun to watch. … I really missed the high school baseball games. I used to go to all the games.”

Rik’s MLB team — the Los Angeles Dodgers — are now at their second training camp of the year at Dodger Stadium and are scheduled to begin the 60-game regular season at home July 23 against the San Francisco Giants.

Chadd’s favorite MLB team?

“We’re all Dodgers fans,” Chadd said. “That’s a Cassidy trait.”

It’s also a Cassidy trait to share the sport of baseball with the next generation. Rik used to coach the Adirondack American Legion squad, and Chadd played for the Lake Placid Blue Bombers and his father’s Post 326 team.

“Some of my fondest memories in sports were summers playing baseball,” Chadd said, adding that he hopes to give his son the same kind of summer baseball experiences he had with his father while growing up in Lake Placid.

Baseball with conditions

An umpire wearing a face shield and face mask, a ball player’s mom sanitizing hands, a first baseman wearing a face mask with a runner on base. These were some of the new scenes witnessed Monday night as the Adirondack Lightning battled the Cougars on the baseball diamond.

Dale Hayes — owner and general manager of the Adirondack Lightning and coach of the under-20 team — was the umpire Monday for the under-14 game. At one point, early in the game, he approached the Lightning dugout as the team prepared to bat.

“Hey guys, I know it’s going to take a lot of getting used to, but you can’t all be in the dugout at the same time,” Hayes said. “That’s just the way it is. … This is the way we’re able to play baseball this year.”

There are numerous changes taking place with the game at this level and state-mandated rules to follow. For example, all players will have their own batting helmets. If bats are shared, they will be sanitized each time they are picked up by another player. And infielders and outfielders who touch a ball during an inning on defense are required to use hand sanitizer when they leave the field.

Wade Triller’s mother hopped up from her lawn chair every inning as the Lightning came off the field to bat, offering hand sanitizer to everyone who touched a ball.

Also, the defensive player on first is required to wear a face mask if there is a runner on first base. Because they are in close proximity to batters, the umpire and catcher behind the plate need to wear a face shield designed to fit over the protective masks they have always worn.

Were all the new rules followed on Monday? No, but most were, and Chadd appreciated the reminders from Hayes.

“I think we all — including myself — need reminders sometimes because you kind of forget the state of the world,” Chadd said. “You forget about the sanitizing or the first baseman wearing a mask when there’s a runner on or some of those little things. I think it’s an adjustment, but I think all in all the game itself ran and operated the way that it normally would.”

Short season

The season for the Adirondack Lightning will only last about four weeks, and Chadd said he will try to get 10 to 12 games in between now and the first weekend of August.

“It’s going to be a short season, but I think it’s going to be really good for the kids, just in terms of getting them back to a kind of normal kind of activity that they can enjoy and have fun with,” Chadd said. “We just really wanted to get the kids on the field and be able to do something, just to kind of get their minds away from everything else.”

Their game against the Cougars didn’t go well. The Lightning lost, but Chadd didn’t remember the score when contacted Wednesday. Despite some good pitching early in the game by Katie Coursen, the team was a bit “rusty,” according to Chadd.

“It’s just a lot of little things,” he said. “We’ve been practicing, but the kids have been off so long and not having played in the spring, I think it kind of took its toll for a pretty young team. … We didn’t execute the way we’d like to, but it was just good to get the kids back out on the field and competing again.”

The Big Boys

The Lightning’s older squad — the U20 team coached by Hayes — kicked its season off Tuesday at Plattsburgh’s Lefty Wilson Field in a doubleheader against the Mariners. Like their younger group, things didn’t turn out great on the scoreboard, as the Lightning was swept 9-3 and 8-6. But Hayes said what was most important was that the guys were finally able to go out and compete for the first time.

“You wouldn’t believe how great it was getting them back out there,” Hayes said. “They’re 20-year-old guys, they’re young men, but you could just see the youth come out in them. They’ve been champing at the bit, waiting since April for this.”

Hayes’ older team is a group of players from across the North Country including Lake Placid, Saranac Lake, Beekmantown, Chateaugay, Madrid-Waddington, Brushton, Malone and Ticonderoga. Up until this summer, Hayes said he’s also had players from Ontario and Montreal on the roster, but the current travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada prevented them from joining the club.

Hayes said the U20 team has a roster of about 18 players, and normally 12 or 13 of them will be in the lineup each game.

“These guys have jobs, they have to work, so they tell me what games they can get to,” he said.

Hayes said he’s coached some of the boys at different levels since the Adirondack Lightning was formed 8 years ago. The U20 squad plays in the eight-team Champlain Valley Baseball League, which he said has been around for 50 years or longer.

Tuesday’s season opener, however, was a non-league matchup. The Lightning will play their first CVBL contests at home Sunday against the 4th Ward A’s in a doubleheader at the North Elba Show Grounds varsity diamond starting at 11 a.m. They’ll have one more non-league outing before that, hosting the Cobras in a doubleheader Friday starting at 4:30 p.m.

Hayes said his older players are getting used to playing the game a bit differently in a learning curve similar to the young guys.

“Baseball has always been a game of handshakes, friendly pats on the back, fist pumps,” he said. “When you have two outfielders chasing down a ball and one of them makes a great catch, they high-five. That’s what they do, and it’s tough not to do that. It’s something that everyone has to be aware of.”

Hayes stated a unique feature of the Lightning is that the players “don’t have to pay a cent” to be on the team, adding that sponsors and fundraisers are the sources of support. What’s made this year particularly difficult is the Lightning’s traditional tournament they would have hosted earlier this summer was canceled due to state orders regarding the coronavirus. This would have been the eighth straight summer for the event, which started with six teams and has since grown to feature 50 squads that hail from “every corner” of New York state, New England and the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec.

Hayes started the tournament has in the past, provided about 90 % of the funding for the season. He added that over the years, whatever operating money for the club that was left over at the end of the season went to charity. Three past recipients were a coach that needed a kidney transplant, the Graves Research Foundation and a juvenile diabetes research organization.

The Adirondack Lightning U20 team uses strictly wooden bats, and Hayes laughed that he’s already contacted a sponsor, Powerhouse Bats in Rochester, after players broke four on Tuesday.

“Two were one brand, and then two more were different brands,” Hayes said. “It was $400 worth of bats.”

Hayes said this summer, the U20 team will looking to play more than 25 games.

Although the guys are certainly looking to pick up some wins, Hayes said being swept in the season-opener was not a discouraging thing.

“For the first time out, I think the guys played very well,” Hayes said. “Things are certainly a bit different this year, but it’s always going to be baseball man. To us, this year, it’s not about victories, it’s just about playing. I want these kids to be able to play.”