The ping of an aluminum bat hitting a baseball and the roar of fans cheering from the bleachers is back in full force at East Mountain Little League. Youngsters are swinging for the fences, running the bases, and trying to catch pop flies or scoop up ground balls—all without Covid restrictions.
“I’d rather be playing baseball more than anything,” said 12-year-old Memphis Serna, who plays on the Bomb Squad, one of East Mountain Little League’s Major Division teams (ages 11-12).
This time last year, East Mountain Little League’s season, which typically would kick off in early April, was just getting started.
The 2021 season was delayed due to lingering Covid concerns, and when Bernalillo County—which owns the fields the league uses—gave the green light for the season to finally get underway, players, coaches, and spectators were required to wear face coverings.
Serna didn’t play last year because he didn’t want to wear a mask, his mother said.
“I mean, it sucks wearing a mask,” Memphis said. “You can’t breathe, it feels like you’re trapped in a little, small box.”
The league experienced a big drop in the number of players last year due to several factors, including the Covid-safe guidelines and mask mandates, and the uncertainty about whether the entire season would happen or if a Covid return would cause another cancellation like in 2020.
But this season, East Mountain Little League is back in full swing with a return to normalcy it hasn’t seen in two years. There are no mask mandates, participation numbers are up, and kids are playing a full spring schedule.
Twenty-two baseball teams and two softball teams have been playing games since April and will continue through June. District and state All-Star tournaments will continue into July.
The total number of kids playing this year is about 50% higher than last year and back to pre-Covid levels, according to league president Karen Demarest.
The league’s Tee Ball division has surged to more than 90 players. Two softball teams, one Rookies (6-8) and one Minors (9-11), and two teenage baseball teams was something the league didn’t have last year due to a lack of players.
“Our numbers are great, we’re at nearly 300 and that’s the most since 2015,” Demarest said. “It’s great to see this many kids back out here playing.”
Offering a normal, full-length spring baseball schedule has been a delight for parents like Tracey Prinz. Prinz said getting her 11-year-old son, Tyler Prinz-Johnson—who hasn’t played for a few years—back into Little League has been “Tremendously rewarding.”
“Going through 2020, I saw the emotional impact it had on him,” Prinz said. “So this has been really good, I’ve seen his anxiety leveling out, it’s been great.”
Participating without the mask mandates of last year is also a welcome addition for many.
“It’s so nice to be back and not have to deal with all that other stuff,” said Cory Burkett, who coaches his two sons on a Minors baseball team.
Jonathan Ortiz—who as a youngster played at East Mountain Little League with his father, Richard, as his coach—now coaches his own son on a Tee Ball team.
“Yeah, it’s great to be out here with the kids without the masks and restrictions,” Ortiz said. “My dad was involved with getting the fields going here and just real involved in Little League, and so I’m enjoying it and want my son to grow up around it the same way.”
For Memphis Serna, being back on the fields playing Little League baseball is “Really cool, and really, really fun.”