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Ball teams handcuffed until provincial COVID restrictions lifted

Grays have renewed baseball and softball ambitions once local men's leagues get green light
17 Grays win Spruce City Fastball
The FFR Glass Grays celebrate their 15-10 win over Falcon Contracting in the Spruce City Men's Fastball Association championship final Friday night at Spruce City Stadium.

After more than a year of living in the shadow of a pandemic, the local sports community desperately needs a shot in the arm.

Slowly but surely, the vaccine is providing that lifeline and Paul Wilson is confident that by late spring he will be getting back to playing baseball and fastball as more people get inoculated and the threat of the virus diminishes.

At 46, Wilson would the first to admit his best days as an athlete are well behind him, but playing ball is something he looks forward to every year and right now it’s the kids who are suffering the most while their activities are curtailed by provincial health orders.

“I feel bad for kids missing their sports, I couldn’t imagine being a young kid, it would just suck,” said Wilson. “It just kills me when I drive by on Ospika and see the soccer fields just empty.

“I just think there’s more harm being done to kids (not letting them play) but I’m no doctor. It’s just unfortunate. Some people want everything locked down and some people want to go back to normal, and when you try to do something in the middle it seems like everybody’s mad. I don’t envy the people making those decisions.”

With case counts still near record levels and the province imposing travel restrictions to discourage people going to and from other health regions, there’s not much hope outdoor leagues will be playing in May, the traditional start of the season. But by July, Wilson thinks the situation could abruptly change for the better.

“It’s kind of my hope the vaccine is going to work and there will probably still be some restrictions but at least we’ll be able to play some games,” he said. “The fastball league played last year and there was no problem. I didn’t hear of any transmission or anybody getting it from being at the ballpark last year, and there was no social distancing and no masks there. Guys liked it because it was like going back in time, it was the one place COVID didn’t seem to go.”

Wilson made the switch to fastball last summer when the Prince George Grays baseball team joined the Spruce City Men’s Fastball Association in late July, when the Prince George Senior Baseball League decided to suspend its 2020 season.

There is a plan in place to revive the senior baseball league and Wilson conformed the Grays will be part of both leagues if that does happen. He says it’s essential for the five-team baseball league to have some kind of league play this summer just to keep players interested. Otherwise there’s a risk of losing them to other activities such as golf or going to the lake, and then it becomes difficult to entice them back to Citizen Field.

“I think for the health of the league we’ve really got to have something this year, and that we at least have some games there so guys don’t completely forget about going to the park,” said Wilson. “It is a challenge because lots of guys have kids and now they’re playing ball and some guys are already kind of part-time now.”

The PGSBL has traditionally given the Prince George Knights 18U team a chance to play at a higher level to prepare the Knights for provincial tournaments and Western Canadian championships and Wilson says it’s vital for the future of the men’s league to continue to provide that opportunity.

‘We need that (Knights) program to be strong and healthy because they kind of feed our men’s league,” he said. “We seem to lose more men than we gain from that every year so we need to make sure that team is playing and that team is doing good.”

“Them missing all of last year, it would be hard for them to miss two years.”

The fastball Grays had just two players – Justin Fillion and  Joel Walkey – with fastball experience and it was a bit of a learning curve for a band of baseball players to learn how to hit the fastball pitches thrown underhanded. But they made their adjustments and turned it on in the late stages, winning seven of their last eight games and four of five in the playoffs to win the SCMFA championship.

There is renewed interest in the Spruce City league and the addition of teams from Burns Lake and Fort St. James could result in a seven-team league based at Spruce City Stadium in 2021.

“It might be a June-July-August season, who knows?” said SCMFA organizer Chad Ghostkeeper, who plays for Falcon Camp Services. “Maybe after the May long weekend things will move. I should know a bit more by the end of this month and once league fees are paid up we’ll have a schedule ready once we’re allowed to get going.”

Once travel restrictions are lifted, Ghostkeeper said local men’s teams will start making plans to attend fastball tournaments in Chase, Cache Creek and Kelowna.

The Grays fastball team was a collection of baseball players who suit up on different teams in the PGSBL and Fillion says the fastball league will try to accommodate them this year by scheduling them to play on nights when there are no baseball games.

“We’re hoping to have a fastball team again, we won it last year so you’ve sort of got to come back and defend your title,” said Fillion. “A lot of guys on our fastball team really enjoyed it and they want to come back and play again.

“It was sweet to win it with a very green team, especially to beat Chad (Ghostkeeper) and all those guys. They like to poke fun at us and give us a hard time and it was good to put in in their face.”

The intimate confines of Spruce City Stadium and the loyal fastball fans who showed up to watch created an atmosphere the baseball players rarely experience and Fillion said that added to their enjoyment of playing the games.

“They had some good crowds and we don’t usually get that in the men’s (baseball) league unless we’re hosting provincials or westerns,” said Fillion. “It was good to play in a nice facility like Spruce City with the big bleachers and have people spread around the park, obviously for COVID reasons.”