The Lewis family can’t imagine a life without baseball.
When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the Murphey Candler Baseball spring season on March 13, it was a blow that devastated Kelli Lewis, her husband John and their three children.
“This is all he’s been looking forward to,” Lewis said about her 12-year-old son Cooper, who was playing on the youth baseball league’s Rockies team against the Cardinals on the morning of June 13 at Murphy Candler Park on West Nancy Creek Drive. “It was truthfully like a mourning in our home when the park called it off.”
The family’s Saturday pastime started back up again after a May 26 Brookhaven City Council vote allowed outdoor athletic leagues to reopen in city parks starting on June 1 with new COVID-19 safety precautions.
Murphey Candler Baseball President Jim Montembeau presented a reopening plan to the city council that outlined the “new normal” for the baseball season, which included wearing masks, social distancing in the stands and controlling the flow of walking traffic. Families watching the two morning games at the park June 13 seemed to follow all the guidelines.
Lewis didn’t mind the adjustments to her Saturday routine.
“Baseball is what he gets up for in the morning,” Lewis said about Cooper as she watched the end of his game. “We are just so grateful and happy to have it back. I think the park has done a really good job of setting expectations.”
Murphey Candler Baseball, a nonprofit, all-volunteer baseball program for children 4-12 years old, only opened the upper leagues, ages 9-12, to better control crowds and COVID-19 safety measures.
All adults, including umpires and coaches, wore masks, which was required and would have been provided if they didn’t have one. Spectators also social-distanced themselves in the stands. The park has signs and roped off areas to create one-way traffic, allowing only one entrance and a separate exit into the baseball fields. Upon entrance, everyone had their temperature checked by a volunteer.
With two games underway at 9 a.m. Saturday morning, those precautions were in full effect, and families respected the guidelines. No separate official monitored whether people followed the guidelines, but coaches and other volunteers were responsible for talking to anyone who may be in violation, according to the reopening presentation.
Hand sanitizer was available at the dugouts and near the bathrooms as well.
Spectators sat in small household groups away from each other in the stands on Saturday morning, sometimes taking off masks when no other families were within 6 feet. Fans at the White Sox and Rangers game at the other field were similarly distanced with face masks.
The umpire that usually stands behind the catcher instead stood about 6 feet away from the pitcher to minimize contact. The players did not wear masks on the field or in the dugout, which was not expected due to their physical activity and the heat, according to the reopening presentation.
All the spectators at the Cardinals and Rockies game had a mask with them. Lewis called after her younger son when he wandered off, telling him to put on his mask whenever he leaves their spot in the stands.
For Rockies mother Ashley Feldman, she said these measures are small inconveniences for the ability of her 12 year old son to play ball.
“We’re so happy to be back playing,” Feldman said. “We’ll take it however we can.”
Feldman sat with a few of her friends in the shade watching their boys play baseball. All four women, who wore masks, applauded the efforts of Murphey Candler to restart the season.
“They really needed this for their mental health,” Cardinals baseball mom Colleen Daniels said. “They were going stir crazy.”
Lewis said she used to spend her entire Saturdays at Murphey Candler Park watching baseball, socializing with friends and frequenting the concessions stand with her children.
However, new guidelines also recommend families to limit the amount of spectators per child and require them to leave immediately after the game, meaning long days happily braving the Georgia heat for a bit of baseball can’t be a reality this summer.
While the players usually high-five the other team, they opted to wave to each other instead after the game was over before meeting with their respective coaches then leaving the park.
The Brookhaven City Council did not take the reopening of outdoor athletic leagues lightly.
For about three hours, councilmembers debated on whether allowing the children to play baseball and other outdoor, recreational sports would be safe, eliciting heated Facebook live comments from the community hoping that a “yes” vote would reopen play at the city park.
Neither Lewis nor board members gave up hope that the baseball season could return. Her son Cooper continued to practice with his dad in the backyard and garage, gearing up for a chance at the bat when games resumed. The board spent weeks preparing safety guidelines before presenting them to the council.
Brookhaven Mayor John Ernst said he visited the baseball fields and felt impressed by the dedication to the COVID-19 safety guidelines.
Lewis said her children have made lifelong friends at the field and consider the Murphey Candler baseball community a family. Her oldest son has played with Murphey Candler Baseball since he was 4 years old, with this season being his last. She’s happy her children have some normalcy back after the months without school or other activities.
Brookhaven began a phased reopening of its parks and recreation on June 1, which included athletic fields, league play and dog parks. Playgrounds and outdoor bathrooms opened June 14.