Local ballplayers trying to stay sharp during coronavirus’ spring shutdown

Saturday, March 21, 2020 | 5:45 PM

Max McDowell was set to begin his sixth season in the minor leagues.

A catcher for the Biloxi Shuckers, the Double-A affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers, McDowell couldn’t wait to start another year of dream-chasing on the diamond.

But the Norwin graduate ended up disappointed.

As slack-jawed as any athlete around the country — pro, college or other — when he was slapped with the bad news, McDowell also fell victim to the coronavirus’ dragnet.

No spring training. No baseball.

McDowell, though, planned to stay busy. He came back to North Huntingdon to his business in an effort to not only satisfy his baseball fix but also to help local players work on their games.

“This is uncharted water and definitely a trying situation for everyone,” McDowell said. “It’s a weird feeling being home right now and not on a baseball field. I haven’t been home for spring since high school.”

The owner of The Baseball Academy of Norwin, McDowell opened his doors last week to players who wanted to hit and throw indoors during the layoff.

But the academy had to join the masses and close its doors, the temporary shutdown forcing many baseball players to find other means to training.

“I tried my best to give every baseball and softball player that same opportunity to train as I have,” McDowell said. “… It was great to see so many of the Norwin players training at the facility last week. They want to play some baseball, and it was awesome to see them continue to put in the work.

“I hate to shut the doors on kids trying to work hard and have some fun but, right now everyone’s safety is obviously more important than baseball. I hope everyone continues to stay safe and we can be playing baseball soon.”

Local high school players aren’t allowed to practice as a team since the state mandate came down to close all schools until at least March 30. The PIAA is waiting to see if the situation improves before it moves to cancel the spring sports season.

Baseball and softball players are doing their best to stay sharp in the hopes of a return to action, but their resources are limited.

Not everyone has amenities. It can seem like a helpless, you’re-on-your-own situation for players who desperately want to play again.

Mt. Pleasant softball coach Chris Brunson owns four acres and several years ago built a 66-by-16-foot pole building in his yard that contains a hitting cage.

His daughters, Haylie and Krista, can hit there and teammates have stopped by to hit in the past.

“That would be happening if there was a virus or not,” Chris Brunson said of the personalized, at-home training. “We have some land, so we can catch and field fly balls. It’s tough when you can’t get together as a team. I’m glad we had team pictures. I told the kids when we broke (last) Friday, just do whatever you can do with your softball person. Just don’t do anything stupid to jeopardize your health.”

Perhaps the only instance where it is acceptable for a coach to be with his or her players is when the coach is said players’ father or mother.

“They can’t really police that,” coach Brunson said.

Teams had roughly two weeks of practice and a scrimmage before everything was paused.

The PIAA made it clear it does not want teams gathering off campus for “captains’ practices,” workouts organized strictly by the players. Social-distancing is as much for small groups, the association believes, as it is large ones.

“The gatherings themselves are contrary to what the state is trying to accomplish,” WPIAL associate executive director Amy Scheuneman said. “If we have a team coming together in an off-site location, you don’t know if it’s clean or not clean. Or if the people are (infected). It’s absolutely contrary to what they have requested.”

Hempfield junior pitcher Phil Fox has a new, 60-foot hitting cage in his backyard. He said friends have stopped by to get in a quick workout during the down time.

“I have been allowing a couple close friends to come over whenever they please so they can also get their work in,” Fox said. “I think right now, more than ever, it’s crucial to be getting your swings in and especially throwing to be in prime shape when the season hopefully begins.”

Aside from video games, players simply can’t get the live feel of pitcher-to-hitter situations. While the country is trying to flatten the curve, pitchers are trying to fine-tune theirs.

“I’m trying to train and lift as much as I can on my own but with a lot of businesses shutting down it’s hard to get work in anywhere,” said senior Bobby Lane, a standout outfielder at Penn-Trafford.

With most public venues closing down, workouts have been limited to homebound surroundings.

“We have a workout plan we’ve been given with push-ups and sit-ups to stay in shape,” Norwin senior softball player Alex Dillner said. I have tees and nets at home but it’s hard to not face pitchers.”

Brunson said Falcon Gymnastics & Fieldhouse in Belle Vernon was a popular spot for workouts, but it has closed temporarily.

All-American Baseball has indoor batting cages at the former Fun Services on Route 30 on Lincoln Highway in Jeannette. Norwin junior infielder Alex Gabauer was planning to go there to train but it also closed.

He instead ended up at Fox’s house.

“It’s going to be pretty difficult to find anywhere to take good defensive reps though,” Gabauer said, “especially if the football field gets shut down for good.”

Lane is a Cincinnati recruit. Players may be discouraged from training with teammates now, but many of them have college futures to think about.

“It makes you wonder what (giving) the senior a fifth year of eligibility will do to recruiting,” Chris Brunson said.

McDowell said he will use the time off to spend with his fiancee and family members.

If it’s any consolation to the high-schoolers, the pros are just as uncertain about their athletic futures.

“I’m doing my best to stay ready for baseball but really don’t know when that phone will ring to come back,” McDowell said. “I’m lucky enough to have the academy.

“But I am looking forward to sunshine and baseball after this all passes.”

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