Little League Season Brings Some Normalcy to Community

By Austin Green
South Pasadena Review

Photo by Austin Green / The Review
Oliver Nickel (5) swings at a pitch in front of catcher Noah Gutierrez during a South Pasadena Little League game last Saturday.

At the end of Stoney Drive, nestled beyond the pickleball courts and golf holes of Arroyo Seco Golf Course, and below unsuspecting drivers on the nearby Route 110 overpass, stand the three baseball fields that make up the main home field of South Pasadena Little League. This year, like most in recent history, the scenic enclave hosts the upper divisions of a vast, competitive league where hundreds of children compete throughout the spring.
2021, however, is not like most years. SPLL’s ability to resume competition at a near-normal level in March, mere weeks after Los Angeles County released guidelines for the resumption outdoor youth sports and well ahead of several other area little leagues, was the culmination of months of planning and a relentless spirit of optimism from the league’s leadership, starting with SPLL president Alberto Ocon.

“From day one, from when this all started when we were shut down, I’ve always been optimistic about trying to figure out how to get the kids back on the field so that they could play,” Ocon said. “That’s what it’s all about. I never had a doubt that we were going to play.”
Once the 2021 SPLL Board of Directors was elected last October, Ocon gathered them on Zoom and made his goal clear — to have the league as ready to play as possible as soon as it got permission from L.A. County, which the South Pasadena city government has deferred to for its health ordinances throughout the pandemic. He needed the board’s support to have a shot at turning that goal into a reality, and he got it.
“Ninety-nine percent of everybody on the board was like, ‘OK, we’re going to do it. Whatever it takes,’” Ocon said.
Board members set to work preparing for a 2021 season, but their optimism was almost immediately tested as COVID-19 cases surged in California in November and December, with L.A. County emerging as the statewide epicenter. Ocon admits the outlook on a 2021 season looked “hopeless” at that point and some league officials, including commissioner of major and junior divisions Sean Dwyer, braced for an announcement that youth sports would be deemed unsafe well into the spring. Still, they continued to prepare for a season, vowing to keep their work going until they were told otherwise.
“In spite of everything that was happening around us, we were still driving forward,” Dwyer said.
The mid-December announcements of safe and effective vaccines against the coronavirus provided a much-needed jolt to the preparations. League officials started canvassing for volunteers and figuring out a schedule for the in-person parts of the reopening process. By January, Dwyer says, “the train was gone.”
There were still plenty of challenges ahead. Every week, SPLL officials waited for new COVID-19 case data and new protocols from the county, and they were often forced to adjust their plans on a dime. Ocon and Dwyer both credit the diversity of the SPLL board’s members, in particular their varied work experience, for helping the league navigate the complexities of drawing up health guidelines and COVID-19-related legal documents. Dwyer, for instance, works in human resources and risk management for a private school in Pasadena and applied what he was doing in his day job to his role on the SPLL board.
“It was great because we had board members that were at organizations that were already implementing these things in their work or in their projects,” Ocon said. “All we had to do was change it over to SPLL. We didn’t have to reinvent the wheel.”
That helped the league condense a preseason that normally takes between 8-10 weeks into a two-week schedule. L.A. County finally cleared the path for youth sports resumption on Feb. 24. By early March, Dwyer was running player evaluations for his divisions at South Pasadena High School with triple the usual number of volunteers to oversee masking, sanitizing, release forms and social distancing. Team drafts were held soon after — some virtually and others in person.
On March 20, SPLL celebrated its opening day, becoming the first little league in California’s District 18 to do so. To date, it is still the only league in the district currently operating, and Ocon says only three of the 12-14 other leagues have even finalized plans to reopen in the coming days and weeks.
Even in what Ocon and Dwyer characterized as a down year for league participation, SPLL still fielded 580 players spread across 35 teams and eight divisions for baseball and 10 teams across five divisions for softball, as well as a Challenger team for children with disabilities.
“It feels like life is getting back to normal,” said Patrick Foudy, who manages a team in SPLL’s American League (ages 8-9) baseball division.
There are still plenty of reminders that pre-pandemic normalcy has not quite been reached. Everyone — including players, coaches, officials and spectators — wears a mask at all times while on the facilities and is encouraged to social distance when possible. Still, the outpouring of positive feedback has been better than even the optimistic Ocon dared to hope for.
“I thought I was going to get… a lot of hesitation and a lot of grumpiness and gripes, but no. Folks have been really gracious and thankful that we’re out there,” the league president said. “Everybody’s doing their best to follow the guidelines and make sure that the kids in the dugouts follow the rules and keep it safe. I’m surprised, I really am.”
Jehni Robinson, whose son Joaquin Cervantes plays on the Juniors team that Dwyer manages, echoed that thankfulness.
“It’s fantastic to be back,” Robinson said. “Joaquin is really excited to be out here playing again and getting to be on the team. For me, him getting out to run around and exercise has been wonderful.”
Dwyer, meanwhile, still has to deal with some unpredictability. For instance, 15 minutes before his team’s April 10 game against a league rival, Dwyer’s son and the team’s scheduled starting pitcher Gavin Dwyer developed stomach cramps. The replacement starter, who barely had any time to warm up, gave up five runs in the first two innings and Dwyer’s squad lost 7-2.
“Mike Tyson once said everybody’s got a plan until they get punched in the mouth,” Sean Dwyer said wryly afterwards.
Due to COVID-19, SPLL got punched in the mouth plenty of times over the previous year, but its leadership learned how to roll with the punches and keep fighting. Now, hundreds of kids are reaping the rewards.