Yogi Hiltner, the president of the Atlantic County Baseball League, says there are more questions than answers this year regarding the status of the league this summer.
Hiltner, who is also the manager of the defending champion Margate Hurricanes, said the ACBL, one of the great sports traditions of South Jersey, has been held each year since the late 1800s except for the years of World Wars I and II.
The ACBL is looking to have its 135th season, but the COVID-19 pandemic has prevented it from getting started. A shortened season is possible but not a certainty.
“(Gov. Phil Murphy’s) orders are that baseball can’t practice until June 22, but that doesn’t do us much good because we still don’t know when we’ll be able to play games,” Hiltner said. “We have to end it (the season and playoffs) by mid-August because we have a lot of college kids going back to school. We also don’t know about the rules, such as distancing in the dugout, wearing masks and fans at the games. We can’t make anything definite until we know the rules.”
The ACBL, which had seven teams last year, added Mays Landing and Egg Harbor City this year. The 2019 season began in May, and this year’s schedule would have to be restructured, much like Major League Baseball, the NBA and the NHL are attempting to do.
“Baseball is Americana,” Hiltner said. “The pitching, the strikes, the hits, everything. Losing it is unfortunate, but we all want to be safe.”
Hiltner said it’s all guesswork until the governor says what can be done and what can’t.
“I understand what the governor is going through, and I wouldn’t want his job,” Hiltner said. “People didn’t mind the shutdown when it was 30 to 40 degrees out, but now it’s 60 to 70, and people are tired of the rules. Young guys want to get out and play. Some people say that we should open things up and social distancing will take care of it. But I don’t know how that relates to baseball.”
The ACBL playoffs had three rounds last year. The Hurricanes beat the 2018 champion Northfield Cardinals in five games in the best-of-five league championship series. The Hurricanes trailed 2-0 in the series but won the final three games, including the deciding game 17-13 on Aug. 13. Margate finished 26-4 (regular season and playoffs combined), and Northfield ended up 22-11.
Since 1980, the Hurricanes have won the title 22 times. Hammonton has won the ACBL 11 times since, and Northfield four times.
Hammonton, which won the ACBL in 2015 and 2016, lost to Northfield last year in the semifinals and fiinished 15-13.
“I stay in contact with my players all time,” Hammonton coach Sam Rodio said. “They’re all ready to go, if possible, if the governor gives us the OK. The virus is still a concern, but there’s been a lot of progress in Atlantic County.
“We’ve gotten a lot of interest from college players who have had their summer leagues canceled. It’s always exciting to see younger guys in the league.”
Like Hiltner, Rodio said the ACBL means a lot to people.
“We want to keep it going, and if we can it would still be worthwhile,” Rodio said. “I hope to see all the teams this summer.”
Like everyone else, Ocean City coach Ted Khoury knows a lot of things would have to work out for there to be an abbreviated season.
“You could play 8 to 10 games and a short playoffs,” said Khoury, whose team was 11-15 in 2019. “It would have a completely different look. I’ve talked to everyone on the team, and a lot of kids would love to play. It’s not going to be easy, and you’d have to have a lot of flexibility with the rosters with kids going to college.
“I’m 50 years in this game, and sometimes it feels like you have to wait till next year. That’s kind of like what it feels like.”