FAIRFIELD — The Fairfield Community School District has agreed to officially sanction middle school baseball and softball as school-sponsored activities. But with the uncertainty surrounding the outbreak of the coronavirus, the district’s young ballplayers might have to wait until next year to hear the umpire yell, “play ball!”
Fairfield Activities Director Jeff Coutright said the middle school baseball and softball seasons are scheduled to begin at the end of May, after the conclusion of middle school track season. The baseball and softball seasons were to last through the beginning of July, but now it’s unclear if it will start on time or at all. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds suspended athletic events until April 14, and recommended that all schools remain closed until that time.
Eliminating the seventh-grade ‘gap’
Until this year, middle school students in the district who wished to play softball or baseball had to join a private, traveling team from the area. Eighth-graders had the option of trying out for the high school team, since baseball and softball are the only two sports that allow eighth-graders to play with high-schoolers. Seventh-graders were caught in a sort of no man’s land because they were too old to play in Little League, but too young to play for the high school teams. Courtright said one of the reasons the district has made middle school baseball and softball school sports is to eliminate that gap.
For many years, middle school students who wished to play ball could join a team on the Babe Ruth League for early teenagers. At one point, the league had eight teams in Fairfield alone. Over time, participation numbers dwindled and the league ultimately folded. It sold its diamond near the Jefferson County Fairgrounds to the Jefferson County Fair Board.
Courtright said that middle school baseball was not recognized as a state-sanctioned sport until this year. Softball, on the other hand, has been a state-sanctioned sport, but Fairfield has not fielded a team.
“The only school in our conference with middle school softball is Washington,” Courtright said. “A lot of middle school leagues originated in small towns” because they could only field one team, so they played against neighboring towns. Cities like Fairfield were able to support multiple teams that could play each other without having to travel, and thus had no need to be school-sanctioned.
Courtright said the district took a survey of seventh-graders to see how many were interested in playing either baseball or softball. The survey revealed that one in every three boys and one in every four girls expressed an interest in playing America’s pastime.
“We’re hoping kids will take advantage of this opportunity,” Courtright said. “It’ll be hard to know how many will join until the first day of practice, but I think the kids will be hungry for this kind of thing.”
Practice, games at O.B. Nelson
Since the high school teams will use the baseball and softball fields south of the middle school, the middle school teams needed diamonds of their own to practice on and perhaps play their games. District representatives met with Fairfield Park & Recreation Department to see if the school could use the diamonds at O.B. Nelson Park, and the city agreed. O.B. Nelson, on the south side of Fairfield, has one softball field, one baseball field, and a third field used for practice but not games.
Courtright said the general public will still be able to use the fields more or less like it always has, with a few exceptions. School dismisses at 3:30 p.m., and the students would use the fields shortly after that. Courtright said the current schedule calls for 10 doubleheader events during the season, about two per week. Some of those will be home games and the others away. Furthermore, not all of them will be played at O.B. Nelson Park.
In fact, Courtright envisions that the middle school ballplayers will mainly use the fields at O.B. Nelson for practice, but otherwise play their games at the fields directly south of the middle school where the high school plays. If the high school teams are using those fields, then the fields at O.B. Nelson could be used for games.
Fairfield Park and Rec Director Calvin Todd said he doesn’t think the middle school’s use of the fields will affect the general public much, either.
“We have some adult slow pitch leagues that use those fields, but the middle schoolers won’t be going late into the evening,” he said. “Once the students are done, [the slow pitch leagues] will be able to play after them. If the school is hosting a game, we might have to move league to another night. This will not be a problem for our current programming.”
In addition to slow-pitch leagues, youth baseball and softball leagues practice at O.B. Nelson.
Calvin said the school is not paying the city anything to use the fields because they are a public service. Any member of the public can use them for free.