They are among the two most desired words for any baseball player or parent to hear from umpires at the beginning of every season.
For those involved with Ahwatukee Little League, those two words will have more meaning this year than in year’s past. On March 15, when the first pitch was thrown out at Ahwatukee Park, it was the first time in two years members of the community heard those words due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“It felt like this giant cloud got lifted,” Ahwatukee Little League President Ray Ng said. “You could see how all the families were happy to see their kids out there. That first game, I think it was something the community and kids really needed.”
Along with schools and high school sports, Little League International determined last March it was unable to host the Little League World Series, a global event shown on ESPN in the late summer months. Little League International also recommended its local chapters, including those in Arizona, cancel their respective seasons.
But some in the East Valley, including Ahwatukee, continued to hold out hope the pandemic would subside enough for games to be played in a condensed season. That never came to fruition, however, as Ng and other board members voted to officially cancel the 2020 season and look toward 2021 for a return.
But even that was threatened before Ahwatukee Little League was able to officially begin its season. A rise in case numbers and hospital metrics in the winter forced the closure of several city parks, including Pecos and Ahwatukee Park, where most games are played. That forced Ng and his board to request assistance from neighboring boards in Tempe and Chandler to play cross-league games at their facilities.
“They really stepped up and helped us by letting us play at their facilities against their teams,” Ng said. “It eliminated some of the obstacles we had in trying to schedule so many games at our one field and when we weren’t able to use it.”
Ahwatukee Little League was able to return to its home field March 22, just a week after its season began. However, as was expected, it came with restrictions.
Parents are required to wear masks at all times at Ahwatukee Park. At Tempe Sports Complex, where some Minors and Majors games will be held after a merger with Tempe South and Tempe Rio Salado during the offseason, the mandates will be the same.
Ng said even with Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey’s executive order Thursday essentially opening the state and removing mask mandates, they will still be required per guidelines set by the parks. Coaches, umpires and players not actively on the field will also be required to wear them. Parents are also asked to continue social distancing measures.
Additionally, there will be limited concessions sold during games. The traditional Opening Day ceremony held at Ahwatukee Park also did not return this season due to COVID concerns.
While some parents may be resistant toward the measures taken by the league, Ng said they will remain in place to ensure the safety of everyone involved.
“We had some push back, but I think everyone understands that it isn’t us making the rules, it’s a condition for us to use the field,” Ng said. “If we don’t follow the rules, we can’t use the fields. We’ve asked the entire community to please abide by it and understand it isn’t a political thing by us.
“It’s so the kids can play this season.”
Players returning to the field was a breath of fresh air for Ng, whose 9-year-old son Maddox, plays in the league.
Ng said Ahwatukee Little League had a warm reception from the community when it was finally able to make its return. Parents were excited to see their kids play while smiles came across the faces of players. For many, it resembles a bit of normalcy. Something that parents had wished for kids throughout the last year since the pandemic began.
Barring another spike in cases and shut down, the league plans to play through May with its in-house tournament and will hold its championship games on June 5 at Ahwatukee Park. From there the league will put together All-Star teams for the 10, 11 and 12-year-olds to play in its district tournament before continuing on to state and beyond.
But no matter how far teams from Ahwatukee or another part of Arizona are able to advance, having the ability to play in general has left many involved thankful.
“It’s calming,” Ng said. “We still kind of have our wits about us in terms of the safety of everyone, but when the kids go out there and play it feels like a lot of our problems disappear.
“That’s the most rewarding part.”