Last Saturday, on a turf infield surrounded by industrial buildings, a coach was working with a small group of young ballplayers on their fielding skills.
Wearing face coverings and standing at least six feet apart, the kids took turns scooping up ground balls and throwing them back to the coach.
“Push through the ball,” the coach instructed.
A continuous clang from aluminum bats hitting baseballs rang out from inside the one-story building adjacent to the turf infield.
Months after the coronavirus pandemic wiped out their season, a slew of baseball players, ages 11-13, are getting back into the swing of the game at Duke City Cages, a baseball and softball training facility located near downtown Albuquerque.
One of the players is Jake Bibo, a sixth-grader at Roosevelt Middle School in Tijeras.
“It feels great,” Bibo said about practicing at Duke City Cages. “Yeah, it’s really fun, and also to not be a couch potato, to get up and get moving.”
East Mountain resident Kalvin Shrader purchased a majority interest in Duke City Cages back in February. “A month later Covid hit,” he said.
The state’s public health order put a damper on his business’s normal operations, so he came up with a way to bring in a small stream of regular customers.
“We decided to open up tryouts [for a club team] to help the kids have somewhere to go,” Shrader said. “On top of trying to stay afloat, we wanted to help the kids that weren’t doing nothing, that were baseball hungry.”
Shrader said the response has been tremendous, including getting 17 kids from the East Mountains. He now has two 13U club baseball teams and has added a softball team.
The focus for the time being is strictly training—the players work on their fielding skills, building arm strength, and polishing their swings.
“There’s no games being played right now,” Shrader said. “So the goal is to stay hot so when we do open up, we’re ready.”
Shrader said he goes to great lengths to adhere to the state’s public health order and keep the kids safe.
“We clean and sanitize everything—sanitize the balls and equipment, doorknobs, bathrooms, all the tables and chairs,” Shrader said. “Before anyone walks in, we temperature-scan and hand sanitize, we’re staying with the five-to-one coach-to-kids ratio, and we limit the number of staff.”
Everyone who enters the facility wears a mask or face covering and maintains the required six-foot physical distance.
Shrader also said he has apps on his phone to get Covid-19 updates and alerts to stay on top of the latest requirements. He has even had visits from the state police who told him he is compliant.
“Every single time they came, they thanked me and said, ‘No, you’re good,’” Shrader said of the state police visits.
Reno Scribner was playing on a club team in the East Mountains before the Covid-19 shutdown. Now he’s practicing regularly with one of Duke City’s club teams.
“It’s amazing, I never thought I’d be here,” Scribner said.
Reno’s father, Bob Scribner, said, “Everything else in the world was shut down so we decided to come down and give this a chance. I think they’re doing an excellent job, they sanitize, they’re following all the [New Mexico Department of Health] protocol, I feel real safe here.”
Edgewood resident Tavery Moorhead said her son Ryan has been in a much better mood since joining one of the Duke City teams.
“He’s been playing [Little League] since he was four years old and he really didn’t know what to do with himself this summer, he was really bummed and down on himself,” Moorhead said. “This has been real good for him mentally and physically.”
Ger has been writing and shooting photos of high school sports for The Independent for 15 years. His dedication to youth athletics goes beyond sports reporting. He is past president of East Mountain Little League and works as a baseball umpire. He lives in Edgewood with his family.