UTICA — Four baseball players were honored as seniors Tuesday night at American Legion 92 field.
It’s a rite of passage in all sports, but one that was denied this spring to seniors across all sports because of the coronavirus pandemic that shuttered schools and turned living rooms and bedrooms into classrooms.
“It almost felt too good to be real,” said Brandon Piper, who along with Ethan Adams were playing a final game for Utica. “It was blissful. It was the perfect ending to everything. I couldn’t ask for anything better.”
The scene was both normal and abnormal. Once the first pitch was thrown, it was a baseball game and including the usual ribbing in the dugout at a swing of a ball in the dirt.
Before the game, Danville seniors Gavin Wills and Zane Risser were recognized by Utica. Risser’s parents walked out on the field with him as if they were back at Danville.
“It was something else,” Wills said. “I haven’t seen live pitching in over a year. I wasn’t expecting to have anything. To know that we have at least a little bit of a season means a lot to me.”
They weren’t back at Danville, though. Danville athletic director Matt Moore explained in a text message that the administration was worried about liability and did not want to police social distancing.
“That’s not fair to our parents,” Danville coach Brian Bratton said. “Our parents should be able to come to games.”
He added that will change in the coming weeks and months as plans are being made for a softball senior night.
Still, Bratton woke up this morning and laid out his uniform — a simple ritual that has become special in the COVID-19 pandemic.
“That’s an experience that you never forget,” Bratton said. “If you’re playing tee-ball all the way up through the Major Leagues, when you get to put that uniform on, it means so much. To have the ability to get out here and play and have fun with the kids.”
Putting the uniform was a pretty big deal for Michael Sandman, who wore his for the first time as the head varsity coach at his alma mater.
“When I was in the press box before the game and I looked out, they were in the brand-new jerseys — the sun came out and the music was blasting and it just gave me goosebumps,” Sandman said. “This is the job I’ve wanted for a long, long time. To finally get out here, it was really special and definitely an emotional day. I’m really happy that we were able to do it for the seniors.”
Utica won the game 14-0 in five innings, though by the end it was more about getting seniors one final at-bat or underclassmen a chance to get in the game than it was about rule. Utica batted in the bottom of the fifth for that reason.
Piper struck out two batters in a 1-2-3 first inning. He had thrown at all this spring.
“I was pretty pleased with my performance,” he said. “I was kinda nervous. I didn’t know how good I’d have it out there.
“That was the first time I’ve truly pitched in a while. I’ve been throwing trying to keep my arm in decent shape. That’s the first dedicated pitching I’ve done since we got canceled.”
Piper thought his baseball career was done.
“I had to sit down and come to terms with it,” he said. “I was like, ‘That might be it. Your last baseball experience might be a practice outside hitting (batting practice). But when I got the news that this was happening, I was happy to be out here one more time.”
Tanner Parsons hit a three-run home run in the first inning, one of two long balls he hit on the evening. Hunter Billman added a two-run shot in the second.
“I have complete confidence in the guys coming up behind me,” Piper said. “Those guys were going to be the core of our team this year and they’re going to be the core of our team next year.”
Danville gets one more game. The Blue Devils will travel to Newark Catholic on Thursday.
“It’s just great for the seniors,” Bratton said. “But it’s also great for the underclassmen. They’re getting the experience. That last inning (tonight), we had three eighth graders that will be freshmen next year. They got to put a uniform on play with the varsity squad and that means something to them.”
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