A gentle breeze from nearby Green Harbor wafted onto the playing field at the Governor Winslow Elementary School, the official home of Marshfield Girls Softball.
Beneath a cloudless sky, teams of girls 12-and-under from the towns of Marshfield and Plymouth competed in the South Shore Summer Softball League’s first night of play after Governor Charlie Baker’s reopening plans for the state entered Phase 3, which authorized youth sports to begin again on Monday, July 6.
I was umpiring the game, my first officiating assignment since a track meet in late February, calling balls and strikes not from my usual spot behind home plate — that would be too-close quarters with the catcher — but from a socially distant spot a few feet behind the pitcher.
The players were spaced out, the sharing of equipment was carefully monitored, and coaches and umpires were masked.
The Girls of Summer were back, albeit with several pages of league rules and COVID-19 protocols developed in accordance with local, state, and federal guidelines.
Despite the changes, it all felt right. Kids are kids, after all. A Plymouth player circled the bases after a hit and some errant throws found her at home plate. It was a play usually treated as if she had hit the ball 400 feet, but the traditional greeting committee at home plate never materialized, replaced by virtual high fives. I don’t think the player from Plymouth felt slighted in the least.
In mid-March, high school and recreational sports across the country came to a standstill. Spring seasons were canceled. In Massachusetts, that meant a large percentage of the 230,000 student-athletes in the state — according to the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association — never had a chance to compete in lacrosse, softball and baseball, outdoor track, golf, tennis, and rugby.
As an MIAA-registered official in four high school sports as well as an umpire for USA Softball, which oversees amateur softball, I felt strange each time I passed the carefully laid-out officiating equipment for softball and outdoor track gathering dust in the corner of the garage.
But my thoughts went almost immediately to those for whom this season might be their last to compete in their sports — the seniors. After losing proms, graduation ceremonies, school plays, and the chance to spend their last months in school with their friends, it was just one more indignity piled onto their plates.
One of the reasons that struck a particularly poignant cord is that for many of the seniors, this was the chance they had waited, perhaps for years, to have. In many cases, they sat behind a senior for one or more seasons.
High school programs that are strong, for instance, will inevitably have at least two strong pitchers, sometimes more. Unless there is a clear difference in ability, coaches will usually give preference to the senior, realizing the younger player will have his or her day.
For the student-athletes who bided their time sitting behind that senior and spent the off-season preparing for a spring that never came, the clock struck 12.
The vast majority of high school student-athletes won’t go on to play in college. It varies widely from sport to sport, but according to the website Scholarshipstats.com and the NCAA, about 7 percent will do so. So, their chance to show their teammates and their coach that they belonged and that college sports might be in their future was gone.
“Your time will come,” the coach told them again and again, and they dreamed of that day while sitting on the bench and waiting. Then it never came.
It isn’t a case of life or death, or financial ruin, or any other of the myriad of long-lasting and life-changing effects of the COVID-19 virus. Still, the loss of that “one shining moment” — envision the montage of highlights that runs at the end of the annual NCAA Basketball Tournament, aka “March Madness” — is yet another victim of the coronavirus.
At the end of the softball game on a picture-perfect summer night there were no handshakes — remember them? — between the players from Marshfield and Plymouth. Virtual “high fives” had to do.
As I left the field I was greeted with thanks from the parents and grandparents ringing the Winslow School complex, who might have been even happier than their kids that sports had returned.
“You don’t happen to know who won, do you?” asked a woman seated near the outfield fence.
“I think it was Marshfield by a few runs.”
“It doesn’t really matter, does it?”
“No, it doesn’t.”
Rich Fahey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.