Will Rogers, director of a senior softball tournament scheduled to take place in early June in Columbia, Mo., will be hosting an event that seems inherently dangerous. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, you’d be hard-pressed to find a public health expert who thinks a gathering of 60 teams from various states, with players ranging in age from 40 to 70-plus, is a good idea. The data could not be clearer: older Americans are most at risk of suffering fatal consequences of the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
However, Rogers, who will also suit up to play with the 65-and-over Kansas City Kids at the Missouri Open, isn’t spending much time worrying about the potential pitfalls of his event. He says the event will have several safety measures in place, like face coverings for catchers and umpires and mandatory social distancing in the dugouts.
“I don’t get nervous,” says Rogers, 67, who’s been in charge of the Missouri Open for some 15 years. “But I’m anxious to get out and compete and play and bullsh*t with the guys.”
As shelter in place orders expire throughout the country and many states gradually begin the economic reopening process, many senior softball players are ready to round the bases again. Rogers says he’s had to turn away about 10 teams from the Missouri Open, which is slated to be the first national-level tournament sanctioned by Senior Softball USA to return since the COVID-19 outbreak.
After weeks in isolation, older people who play the game are itching to experience some camaraderie. Some 30,000 seniors across the country play tournament-level softball, according to Senior Softball USA, and around 1.5 million Americans over 50 play the game recreationally in church leagues, bar leagues and other local outlets.
“There are guys that are a lot more anxious about the coronavirus than I am,” says Rogers. “I’m going to be cautious. I’m not going to lick doorknobs and or the softball. But I feel like I’m fairly safe. I’m in decent health. I never smoke so my lungs aren’t f’d up so I’m at a lower risk of getting pneumonia and those sorts of things.”
Senior softball is a uniquely American enterprise: a subculture of elderly sport devotees playing what’s mostly considered a young person’s game. But the fraught balancing act in reopening a niche sport like senior softball during the COVID-19 pandemic will ring familiar to any business across the country. For many seniors, tournaments like the Missouri Open represent a much-needed return to normalcy. Plus, the longer softball remains on the shelf, the economic urgency to relaunch events grows higher.
“Even in senior softball,” says Darrell Pinkerton, 80, who manages 65-and-over and 70-and-over teams based in Oklahoma and Arkansas, “a lot of it is about the money.”
Senior Softball USA is a 501 c(4) tax-exempt “social welfare organization” generating more than $2.2 million in revenue in 2018, according to its most recent tax filing and the entry fee for the Missouri Open is $400 per team. Cities need the revenues that come along with the 60-team sporting event and hotels are happy to host the players, who represent teams from 10 different states, including Arkansas, Indiana, Minnesota.
Weighing on events like the Missouri Open, however, is its customer base: the age group most as risk of dying of the disease. (There are seven 70-and-over teams registered to play in the June tournament. Missouri’s shelter-in-place order expired on May 3). While softball is far from a full-contact sport, tagging on the basepaths is part of the game and collisions on the field are impossible to predict. Well-intentioned social distancing rules and promises to sanitize the softballs can only do so much to prevent the potential spread of COVID-19.
Professional baseball won’t return without frequent testing of much younger players, who are much more likely to recover from COVID-19. But an amateur event for senior citizens is slated to start without COVID-19 tests and public health experts are concerned.
“It kind of boggles my mind,” says Arthur Caplan, director of the Division of Medical Ethics at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine, who’s consulting with mayors around the country on the safe reopening of local sports. “It’s not the responsible thing to do.”
Seniors, however, insist on playing ball in places that allow it. This Memorial Day weekend, the city of Fountain Hills, Ariz., hosted a 27-team senior softball tournament with social distancing and rules like no spitting and no sunflower seeds; Arizona’s stay-at-home order expired May 15. At least one team came from both California and Las Vegas. Players had to sign a waiver: “I understand the risk associated with COVID-19 and I agree to follow all guidelines and rules set forth to enforce social distancing,” it read. “I acknowledge that I am not ill and to my knowledge I have not been exposed to anyone with COVID-19 within the last two weeks.”
Recent CDC guidelines on youth sports put travel tournaments in the “highest-risk” category, given their potential as a COVID-19 vector: children and families could catch the disease on the field, in a hotel or while in transit, and carry it back to their home communities. If the CDC considers youth travel tournaments highest risk, the risk of senior travel tournaments is off the charts.
“When it becomes a burden on society to take care of you should you catch the disease, when you’re potentially reopening the disease to people not playing softball, I think you have a different set of obligations,” says Caplan. “I would say to my 70-year-old friends, I know you want to play softball with your buddies. I get that it’s a great social outlet, and important to your quality of life. That’s why you should just enjoy it next summer.”
The CEO of Senior Softball USA, Terry Hennessy, cites several factors driving the return of his organization’s events during the pandemic. First, his players are calling for a resumption of the season.
“A lot of the players stuck in their houses for a few months are saying, ‘I want to get out, I want to play,’” says Hennessy, 68. And while Hennessy recognizes the risks, he says he knows of only three of the 30,000 tournament softball players who have died of COVID-19. And they each had preexisting conditions, he says. He anticipated many more fatalities.
Hennessy’s also transparent about his business incentives. Most of Senior Softball USA’s eight employees at its Sacramento, Calif., headquarters have been furloughed during the pandemic. “It doesn’t matter what kind of business it is, you have to maintain some kind of revenues flow or you’re not going to have a business,” says Hennessy. “It’s a personal as well as a business decision. You don’t want to put people in danger. You don’t want to risk their health. It’s a tough balance.”
Senior Softball USA has drawn up a set of safety guidelines for returning. Postgame handshakes between teams are prohibited. Players must linger out of the dugout and behind any fencing, if necessary, to maintain six-feet of social distancing. Masks in the dugout are encouraged, but not required. Catchers must cover their nose and mouth. Umpires must wear face shields or masks. There won’t be communal water jugs.
When asked to pass along any public health professionals he consulted with in drawling up guidelines, Hennessy forwarded contact information for his daughter, Jayme Hennessy, a nurse practitioner in the Boston area. Terry Hennessy said he used CDC recommendations concerning social distancing, face masks, washing hands and disinfecting common surfaces to build the health and safety guidelines. And Jayme Hennessy joined an online conference with umpires-in-chief and tournament directors to discuss their implementation.
“I am by no means an expert in infectious diseases, epidemiology or COVID-19,” Jayme Hennessy wrote via email to TIME. “I am a licensed nurse practitioner and practicing clinical nurse. My father asked me to participate in a call to provide a clinical perspective and offer suggestions on mitigating risk for playing softball during the current pandemic. I would also like to say that, as a medical professional, I cannot recommend moving forward with these tournaments. I can’t imagine any person in the medical field would.”
Jayme does believe the social distancing measures will help reduce transmission. “This virus scares me,” Jayme writes. “As we all know by now, it is particularly harmful and deadly to people in my father’s age bracket. I would honestly prefer that he stayed at home and quarantined until more treatments became available. But my father loves softball.”
The city of Columbia’s “guidance for businesses” allows for limited contact sports, which includes softball. According to a document sent from the Columbia parks department to the city’s health department, all Missouri Open players “will be screened at check in and will have their temperature taken with an infra-red thermometer.” Tournament director Will Rogers, however, tells TIME that although he has purchased an infra-red thermometer for the event, he hasn’t finalized his plan yet for using it. “I could go around and check everybody,” says Rogers. “But that’s going to take forever.”
Mike Griggs, director of Columbia’s Parks & Recreation Department, tells TIME that Missouri Open organizers are “expecting the teams that are coming out of state will likely be those men’s 40, the 40-50 years age teams. That the seniors probably won’t travel.” According to the Missouri Open registration sheet, however, 42 of the 60 teams, or 70%, consist of players 55 and over. There are 13 60-and-over teams signed up; nine of the them are 65-and-over and seven of them are 70-and over.
Around 65% of these teams are from out of state. The 70-and-over teams are from Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska. Four teams in the tournament from the Chicagoland area. (Illinois’ COVID-19 reported case count, which is approaching 108,000, trails that of only New York and New Jersey)
“Oh really?” Griggs says when I tell him that 70-and-over teams are registered for the tournament. “Get the heck out of here. Well, that’s something.”
Some senior softball players have mixed feelings about reopening. Mark Smith, an FBI analyst from Overland Park, Kans., and a power hitter for the Oklahoma Relics, hopes the Missouri Open gets called off.
“It’s really dangerous for older folks,” says Smith. “We don’t have the immune system to fight this thing off.” He’s worried about staying in a hotel and eating in restaurants during the tournament and potentially bringing COVID-19 home to his wife, who’s already suffering from cancer. “Boy, it just makes me nervous as crud.”
Charlie Myers, a retired facility maintenance worker for American Airlines, has made up his mind: he’s going to skip the Missouri Open. Myers, 70, lives in Newark, Texas, and flying to Missouri just isn’t worth it to him.
“I go there to have fun,” says Myers, a shortstop for the USA Patriots, a team based in Oklahoma. “To have to be six-feet apart, wearing a mask outside the dugout, and you can’t go out to eat with your team like you normally would … It’s just not the same.”
His USA Patriots teammate Mike Seraphin, however, will be taking a plane from Texas to Missouri, despite the travel risks, and despite his age (71). Seraphin, a retired residential real estate appraiser who lives in Benbrook, Texas, thinks he’ll adjust to the Missouri Open restrictions on softball field contact. “I’d probably have to occasionally think twice about it,” says Seraphin. “But we’ve been doing the social distancing, no hand shaking, no church, not this, that or the other. I think it will be part of the normal procedures.”
When asked to explain why he’s comfortable flying across the state lines for a softball tournament during the COVID-19 pandemic, Seraphin pauses to consider his words. “Why am I going?” he says. “I am in the age group. But I don’t think I have any of the underlying secondary issues. I don’t see the great risk of going out there any playing. The regular flu is a risk. You drive around and who knows what’s going to happen. Nobody knows when they’re going to die. So just go ahead with it.”