The coronavirus pandemic put the entire world on pause to mitigate the threat of the illness.
Restaurants were forced to transition to takeout and delivery, retail stores were closed, and all sporting events were suspended until further notice. That suspension turned into a cancellation for universities and high schools back in March. On April 30, Little League International closed the door on the Little League World Series, prompting Ahwatukee Little League and others across the East Valley to follow suit and cancel their seasons.
“It was gut-wrenching to say the least,” Ray Ng Ahwatukee Little League president said.
“We have about 50 or 60 12-year-olds where this is their last year and a majority of them have been playing in our league for a long time. To have this last year taken from them is difficult,” he added. “We tried to do everything we could to save the season for them.”
Little League International President and CEO Stephen Keener said despite the World Series being canceled, individual leagues across the country could still play their seasons if deemed safe by local health authorities.
Ng and other members of the board sought different ways to still have a season, including extending tournament play through June, which is usually the time All-Stars would be selected to play in state tournaments.
But too much uncertainty remained. Ahwatukee Little League officially announced the season would be canceled on April 30, shortly after the announcement from Little League International.
Refunds on the $50 registration fee were offered to families. But as many as 100 elected to donate it back to the league.
“It shows how important Little League baseball is to this community,” Ng said. “The cost to put on Little League far exceeds the fees we take in for registration. We want to make sure its accessible to everybody. We even provide scholarships to kids in need that want to play.
“We try to make up some of that money throughout the season with fundraisers but didn’t have that chance this year. So for the community to rally around us is a true blessing.”
The news weighed heavily on 12-year-old Ben Ball, who is in his last year playing Little League. He was looking forward to having a chance to compete for a spot on the All-Star team and attempt to represent Ahwatukee at the Little League World Series for the first time since 2006.
But more than that, he wanted to spend a part of the summer playing with teammates that have become some of his best friends.
“It sucked,” Ben said while holding back tears, “just not being able to make those memories with the team for our last summer. All of us became really close, even outside of baseball.”
Ben became the first-ever sixth-grade student to make the junior varsity baseball team at Altadeña Middle School this season. However, he broke his thumb during the first practice. He was in the process of being cleared to come back, but the school was then closed, and the season canceled due to the virus.
But his school year there was still filled with other accolades. He ran the shuttle in 8.36 seconds, beating the previous best time of 8.5 seconds set by Mountain Pointe senior and potential first-round pick in this year’s MLB Draft, Carson Tucker.
Ben also plays in a local basketball league, but baseball is his sport of choice.
“I think baseball is more fun,” Ben said, who is a pitcher and shortstop. “I feel like you have more control of the game. And the community and being able to play with your friends, it just makes it better.”
The Little League season being canceled also weighed heavily on Geoff Ball, Ben’s father.
Geoff served two seasons as the president of the Ahwatukee Little League before Ng and has been the manager of the All-Star team the last three. He stayed on as a member to assist Ng, who is in his first, and arguably most difficult year.
When the Little League World Series was officially canceled, Geoff said he watched it alongside Ben. While difficult, the two shared a special moment together.
“We didn’t really say much to each other, but I said, ‘I’m really sorry, bud,’” Geoff said. “We just stood up and hugged each other.
“It was definitely one of those father-son moments you want to have during a difficult time.”