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Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
In the nearly two weeks since his team played in a baseball tournament in Surprise, Arizona, Jim Dixon has been fielding questions about rumors that “spread like wildfire” that coronavirus had infected players on one of his teams.
That is false, said Dixon, director of Next Level Baseball Academy.
Next Level is based in Albuquerque but has been sending teams out of state, because the state’s public health order prohibits play in New Mexico.
Five Next Level teams, roughly 55 New Mexico players, attended the Arizona tournament June 10-18.
Next Level is not alone. Other New Mexico baseball clubs are sending teams to tournaments elsewhere, as well. The coaches say it allows their players to play and compete in a sport they love. And it is an opportunity for them to showcase their skills in front of college coaches, who attend the tournaments looking for prospective players.
Dixon said that when the coaches and players travel out of state, they are required to be tested for coronavirus three days after their return. They do not travel by air for tournaments, Dixon said.
New Mexico Human Services Department Secretary Dr. David Scrase, during virus updates with the governor on June 19 and June 25, said a travel-ball team had brought back the virus.
“There was a baseball tournament in Arizona where we had a New Mexico team go and coaches and players brought back COVID,” Scrase said June 19.
Scrase denied an interview request from the Journal regarding youth baseball and travel teams. He also declined to answer questions emailed to his spokesperson asking for specifics about his claim.
Dana Gilmer, a director of the U.S. Specialty Sports Association for baseball and softball in New Mexico, said Scrase’s information is “not accurate,” based on information he has received from New Mexico coaches.
According to the coaches Gilmer has spoken with, no players have contracted coronavirus. Travel-ball teams like Next Level are sanctioned by USSSA.
But two parents of a Next Level player did test positive for coronavirus while in Surprise, and they went into quarantine, Dixon said. They started showing symptoms June 13, three days after arriving in Arizona.
Dixon said one of the parents works at Bernalillo County’s Metropolitan Detention Center.
The Journal reported last Wednesday that two staff members and an inmate at the Metropolitan Detention Center tested positive for the virus.
Dixon added that all the players who traveled to Arizona with Next Level were tested for coronavirus and that all the tests came back negative. The players are ages 12 to 17.
Dixon and Mike McDermott, who founded the Hooligans Baseball Club in Rio Rancho, said they enforce all the coronavirus prevention guidelines with their respective teams, including conducting scanned temperature checks for each of the players daily during tournaments.
The state allows teams to practice in New Mexico while following strict guidelines, including a maximum of five players to one coach.
“I’m upset at the fact that there are false accusations, but then I have emails to back up everything I’m saying,” Dixon said. “I have Little Leagues calling me, others asking me. It has run amok. It’s complete horse (expletive). This got spread negatively on us.”
According to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s executive order, air travelers to New Mexico are required to self-isolate for at least 14 days to help combat the spread of COVID-19. The state’s travel advisory also says: “With the recent increase of infections throughout the nation and the southwest, car travelers are strongly encouraged to self-isolate for 14 days when traveling to New Mexico.”
Last week, Lujan Grisham held off on clearing New Mexico for Phase 2 of reopening, which still means no baseball games or several other sports in New Mexico.
Dixon and McDermott both said they think it’s safe to play baseball, so they travel to where it is allowed.
Gilmer, of U.S. Specialty Sports, said girls fast-pitch teams and adult softball squads are also traveling out of state to compete.
But Mike Foote of the Albuquerque Baseball Academy declined to say whether teams in his organization are playing out of state.
Seasons for New Mexico high school baseball players, along with everyone else in the country, were canceled this past spring because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The players want to play ball, Dixon said. And there is no shortage of opportunities to do so.
Besides Arizona, tournaments are scheduled for Texas, Kansas, Colorado and Nevada. Some of those tournaments are organized six months in advance, McDermott said.
A Perfect Game tournament is scheduled for July 10-16 in Surprise, Arizona. That tournament features 15- through 17-year-olds.
Dixon, who coaches a Next Level team of that age group, said his team will compete in it.
Coaches such as Dixon and McDermott are relieved their baseball players can travel out of state to play this summer.
“It’s a big thing when we travel in the summer,” McDermott said.
But this summer has been challenging in many ways for the baseball players, including financially, McDermott said.
A lot of families are struggling amid the pandemic, and it is difficult to afford travel to the tournaments. But some of the players see baseball as a ticket into college.
Dixon and McDermott are frustrated that baseball cannot be played in New Mexico.
“It’s definitely been difficult,” McDermott said. “What made it a lot harder is we’ve had a lot of events come to New Mexico in the last few years, and that would save our parents thousands of dollars because we could stay home for when the scouts came in. Having to take all of our players on the road the whole summer has definitely been quite the task.”
Two of McDermott’s Rio Rancho teams were in San Antonio, Texas, for a tournament June 19-21 and remained in Texas so they could play in another tournament June 25-28 in Corpus Christi.
The coaches believe baseball is also beneficial for the players’ mental and physical health. So they continue to travel and compete.
“Nowhere and nobody is perfectly safe from this, but by the same token, it’s been really well received with our players and parents,” Dixon said.
“We haven’t had much pushback on playing because the kids are very eager to get out there. I think the parents are, too, to be honest.”