By definition, a comeback story is the return of some thing or some one to a former status. Up to and including 2019, Rhode Island High School student athletes participated in a wide range of athletic competitions, games, tournaments, and championships throughout the state with tons of adoring fans in attendance. Every year for as long as I can remember, the Rhode Island High School baseball season is jammed packed with exciting games, great performances on the mound, and incredible hits followed by the thunderous cheers of Moms and Dads and fans in the stands throughout Rhode Island’s High School baseball fields. In 2020, due to the State of Rhode Island and CDC guidelines and safety measures to combat Covid-19, the Rhode Island High School Baseball season was cancelled. Baseball fields from Westerly to Woonsocket, from Tiverton to Scituate and all points in between put up safety placards encouraging social distancing, mask or face covering, and stating to stay away from the fields if you were sick or felt symptoms of Covid-19. Rhode Island student athletes, their coaches, their parents, their friends, their family members were told there would be no practices, no games, no scrimmages, no playoffs, no at bats, no trips to the mound, no season.
At or around June of 2020, Rhode Island High School age players and their families and fans waited for state restrictions to be lifted so they could participate in local, recreational and travel baseball programs. Some of the restrictions were lifted so players could participate in games, but with some safety measures put into place. Players, coaches, and support staff were instructed to wear masks at all times while on the field, in the dugout, and around the facility itself. Parents and fans were also encouraged to wear masks and to stay and stand at least 6 feet apart from each other, and to stay with close family members only. It was suggested that social distancing be practiced in the stands, in the bleachers, along the third base lines, and in the shaded areas of the baseball fields. Baseball players wearing masks on the mound and at bat and in the dugout? Fans who have been to 10,000 games with each other not allowed to be near each other? Safety guidelines excusing players to be placed in quarantine if they had been in contact with someone who contracted Covid-19, even though they had tested negative? Baseball did make a return somewhat in mid to late 2020, but it wasn’t the baseball I grew up playing, coaching, and being a fan. To put a bow on this paragraph, it just didn’t feel right.
As Rhode Island Student Athletes began their academic year in September of 2020, it was announced by the Rhode Island Interscholastic League (RIIL), who governs over all Rhode Island High School Athletics, that the Fall 2020 sports had been postponed. At or around the date of this announcement, the RIIL was working on a series of schedule adjustments (adding a “Spring 2” season) for all of the Rhode Island High School sports like football, soccer, field hockey, lacrosse, softball, track and field, and yes baseball. Seasons were going to be literally blending into one, with some possible delays, and other with very little down time in between them. I was really happy to read about the Fall Sports teams moving to a “Spring 2” season and having the opportunity to play their sport, have their fans attend, have a championship run, and ultimately have the experience. With the advent of the “Spring 2” season, the 2021 Rhode Island High School baseball season would in fact be delayed a few weeks to allow the Spring 2 student athletes to complete their season. Many Spring 2 student athletes would play a huge role in the Spring baseball season. Once the “Spring 2” championships were complete, it was time for the Rhode Island High School Baseball Comeback Story to begin.
The first games of the 2021 Rhode Island High School baseball season kicked off the first week of May. For me, it was a North Kingstown High School Junior Varsity game with a very special player I was going to see, my son Harrison. Portsmouth JV vs NKHS JV at Portsmouth High School was one of the best games I have ever attended, on so many levels. Sure there were many safety measures still in place. CDC guidelines were still encouraged to players, coaches, and fans attending games. Social gathering restrictions were still in place for outdoor events. On the field, players were required to wear masks on the mound, at the plate, catching, hitting, fielding, and in the dugouts. The umpires behind home plate and in the field were required to wear masks. To be honest, it felt a little strange seeing my son wearing a mask in the dugout and on the mound and at the plate. It just didn’t feel right watching a baseball game with players and umpires all wearing masks. Yes, the games had begun and some of the fans were back and excitement was building slowly but it still had a ways to go before it was a true comeback.
I attended the Lincoln vs Bishop Hendricken game on Saturday, May 15th. Between the start of the Rhode Island High School baseball season and this game, the State of Rhode Island and the CDC had lifted some of the restrictions for social gatherings so I was eager to see not only the game on the field, but also what the crowd was like. On the field, the catcher and hitter and home plate umpire were required to wear a mask, per one of the parents I spoke to at the game. I noticed a few players defensively who were also wearing a mask, but for the most part the players were mask-less. Fans had gathered in the bleachers in right field, along the perimeter fencing, behind home plate, and in the bleachers out past the third base dugout. And when they saw other families whom they hadn’t seen in person for months and months, this is where the comeback story really starting to gain some traction. Sure there were some awkward elbow exchanges (as opposed to handshakes) and some comments like “wow your hair got long” or “hey, you grew a beard.” But there were also hugs and embraces and high fives and warm handshakes and “how long has it been” and “wow you look great” and “oh wow, it is so nice to see you.” Fans were coming back to watch Rhode Island Baseball again and be part of a special community.
A week later, I had an amazing trip to see Paul Cuffee School vs Block Island, traveling with the Paul Cuffee School baseball team on the ferry over to Block Island. I had asked the Athletic Directors of both schools for permission to attend the game and speak to the players, as per the RIIL media recommendations. I wore my mask during the ferry ride as I interviewed the coaching staff and players. At the game, I did wear my mask when I was around the Block Island Baseball families and fans, who had gathered together to watch the game from the bleachers just behind the first base dugout. As with the Lincoln game, the hitter and catcher and umpires were all wearing masks. Some of the players in the field were also wearing masks but for the most part, they were mask-less. As with the Lincoln game, I saw a lot of families catching up with other families throughout the game and certainly after. These Block Island fans, like many, had not attended a home high school baseball game in over 2 years. And it was an awesome experience for me to see how happy they all were be back at Heinz Field cheering on their Hurricanes Baseball team.
As the 2021 Rhode Island High School baseball season moved through May, more and more State of Rhode Island and CDC restrictions were lifted and even removed. Players and umpires and coaches were no longer required to wear a mask on the field. Social gathering restrictions, once limited, were now unlimited. The outdoor mask mandates had been mostly lifted, with a few exceptions. Fans, who were sitting socially distanced apart for most of the year, could now share spaces with other families behind home plate, in the bleachers, along the fences, and create the kind of loud cheering section that the players just absolutely love. That fan element was missing in the 2020 and perhaps the first part of the 2021 season – the roar of the fans, cheering and screaming in unison on every base hit or strikeout of game winning diving catch. As the season moved to June and teams were winding down their schedules, the comeback story was starting to take shape as Senior Nights approached and playoffs games were just about to begin.
Starting in late May, I attended as many as Senior Night baseball games throughout the State of Rhode Island as my schedule would allow. I attended a unique Cranston Stadium Senior Night featuring ceremonies for both Cranston East and Cranston West. I attended Chariho High School’s Senior Night vs East Providence High School. I attended East Greenwich High School’s Senior Night and Coach Bob Downey’s last home game vs Portsmouth High School. I attended Smithfield High School’s Senior Night vs Moses Brown High School. Different venues, same basic themes. Parents and players and coaches and schools and families and friends all gathered together in huge numbers to cheer and cry and celebrate years of playing baseball for their hometown team. Players escorted Moms and Dads and family members out to the field one last time. There were posters and balloons and ribbons and flags and signs stapled, tacked, zip-tied to fences all over the place. The crowds cheered like crazy and that point I began to think and feel and acknowledge the Rhode Island High School Baseball Comeback Story was REAL and happening right in front of my eyes.
The 2021 Rhode Island Interscholastic League Varsity Baseball State Tournaments for Division 1, 2, and 3 began Sunday June 13th. Fans were excited, the players and coaches were ready, the fields looked amazing, and there were no restrictions in place coming from the State of Rhode Island and the CDC. I attended the Rogers vs North Providence opening round game of the Division 2 Tournament at Cardines Field. North Providence had a huge fan base at the game as did the home town team Rogers High School. Fans, like myself, could walk around Cardines, mingle with other families, watch the game, and be a part of an amazing playoff game. The play on the field was spectacular and the player’s family, friends, and fellow students were all there, in attendance, making their presence felt with thundering applause pitch after pitch. A classic pitchers duel, some timely hits, and a great defensive baseball display. Baseball was back in a big way at Cardines Field and this would be the theme at every baseball game I would attend throughout the playoffs.
I traveled from Cardines Field to Wheeler Farm to Barrington to Coventry to West Warwick and finally to Rhode Island College covering the 2021 Rhode Island High School Varsity Baseball Tournaments. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see as many games as I would have liked. But the ones I did attend were incredible and emotionally taxing and amazing to be a part of. I saw towering home runs. I watched a pitcher’s duel for the ages featuring Acuna vs Voelker at the Coventry vs Central game. I observed the pre-game psych them up huddles and the emotional post game chats after a tough loss. I watched as high school age fielders dove for baseballs and stood up and threw runners out at first base. I saw crazy plays with a lot of moving parts running the bases and stealing home. I was at the Barrington vs Burrillville playoff game that had a lead change in just about every 1/2 inning all the way to the bottom of the 7th. And at the Hope vs Exeter West Greenwich game that lasted close to 3 hours with one team scoring, then the other team tying, only for the other team to surge ahead, only for the other team to surge back for 7 incredible innings. I watched Game 2 of the D1 finals with a heavy heart as Coventry ripped my hometown North Kingstown by 8 runs, backed by a sophomore phenom Tommy Turner on the mound. And that was just the excitement I witnessed on the field.
In the stands, in the bleachers, behind home plate, in the woods, or wherever they could find a spot – Rhode Island baseball fans were writing the comeback story of a lifetime. They showed up in huge numbers. The Moms at the Coventry games wore Coventry jerseys with their son’s names and numbers on the backs. Burrillville, located almost an hour from Barrington, showed up in big numbers to watch their Broncos at Barrington High School. At the Coventry vs Central game, I walked around the field to see Central fans everywhere, cheering and screaming for their Knights. At the D3 Championship game, Hope High School fans pounded on small drums, whacked cowbells, and enthusiastically cheered in both English and Spanish on every pitch. Likewise at that D3 game, Exeter West Greenwich stomped their feet, chanted “MVP”, and were equal to the Hope fans in enthusiasm for their Scarlet Knights. When I arrived at the D1 Semifinals on Saturday, the intensity in the stands could be felt in the parking lot some football field distance away from the field. North Kingstown parents, JV players, community members – many of them I know personally – crammed into any spot possibly on and around the third base line. Coventry fans are legendary for showing up to any game in any town, in any STATE. Coventry family members, fans, and friends took up every spot from the press box area all the way down to the right field foul pole. The cheering was deafening and I was in heaven listening to it. Book it, stamp it complete – Rhode Island High School Baseball had come back with a tremendous explosion of awesomeness.
Here in Rhode Island, we are blessed to have great sports writers who covered each and every RIIL Varsity Baseball playoff game, including the D1, D2, and D3 finals. For a recap on the games and the scores and their takes, I encourage you to read the Independent and the Providence Journal and the Pawtucket Times and the Woonsocket Call and your local newspaper. These writers each have a unique and wonderful take on the games along with some amazing game footage. I support local writers and I respect their craft.
As for me, as I always say, I write as a fan. I’m not always so interested in wins and losses. I am more about the experiences, the feel of the game, the emotions, and the story. This 2021 Rhode Island High School baseball comeback story will go down as one of my favorite stories to have experienced. Congratulations to the Rhode Island High School Baseball players, coaches, fans, and families for allowing me to be a small part in your memorable 2021 comeback story.