The pandemic rains on North Buffalo’s beloved parade

Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB)–The opening day parade would have been this Saturday morning. Every year in early May, about 1,000 kids in their spanking clean uniforms would march down Hertel Avenue, heralding the long-awaited beginning of another baseball season at Shoshone Park.

In North Buffalo, it’s a rite of spring, as precious a parade as the one they hold to the south every year on St. Paddy’s. The kids amble down Hertel, while their coaches try vainly to keep them in orderly rows, waving to neighbors and merchants who stand along the roadside, cheering as they pass by.

Most everyone played ball at some point in the Hertel North Park Youth Baseball League — or simply, Shoshone. When my daughter Emily was 5, we sat on the front porch and watched the parade go by. She didn’t know a thing about baseball, but she knew she wanted to march in that parade one day.

Two years later, she was playing softball, ‘Ponytail’ as they called it. That began two decades of days and nights watching my three children play at Shoshone. You pushed a stroller between the diamonds while watching another kid play. You smiled as Jeff Smith told the little kids to get “baseball ready!” You greeted league statistician Bill Snyder as he walked by with his scorebook. 

But there’s no Hertel parade this weekend, no baseball. It’s our familiar sad song nowadays. The coronavirus has halted much of the life we took for granted — movies, restaurants, jobs, watching sports on TV and yes, kids playing organized games.

“It’s tough,” said Max Schmarder, 18, who grew up playing baseball at Shoshone. Like many kids, Max played from age 7 to 16. Now, he’s a senior and one of the top players in the city league at Olmsted. He volunteers in the park, where his father, Eric, is a member of the HNPYBL board. 

“The whole Opening Day festivities were something every kid looked forward to,” said Schmarder, who will play baseball at Monroe Community College in the fall. “Not just the start of baseball. When I was there, everyone wanted to go see the mayor for a piece of gum. He always brought Double Bubble. Never the normal kind. He usually brought a different flavor.”

There’s no gum this year. The big question, as in all of American sports, is how soon the games will go on this year. When the pandemic struck here two months ago, they were hoping to start at Shoshone on the original May 9 date. Now, the most realistic projections have them starting in early July.

“Actually, we were ready to go,” said Don Morris, who has been president of the HNPYBL for 29 years. “It’s just a matter of when our government and health officials will let us do anything, and trying to figure out what requirements they’re going to put on.”

Morris realized it’s impossible to play baseball any time soon with the social distancing restrictions. It’s hard to maintain six feet of distance on a close plate at the plate, after all.

“If we can get started July 1, we can still pretty much put almost a full season together,” Morris said. “There would have to be some juggling with the playoffs, but if we can get started July 1, we could put 90 percent of the season together.”

Even that projection seems optimistic at this point. On Thursday, county executive Mark Poloncarz said it’s unlikely that there will be youth sports “at all” this summer. He said he doesn’t believe it will be safe. 

That’s a crushing thought for people whose summers revolve around Shoshone. The HNPYBL has been around since 1957, when it began with four teams of Little Leaguers. It’s a civic treasure, the one thriving youth baseball league in a city where the sport has gradually fallen out of favor over the decades. 

Morris said there are 700 kids registered, a process that begins in December. They had 986 players last season and were expecting similar numbers for 2020. He’s had only four cancellations. People are still hoping. Morris said he’s been at Shoshone since 1982 and they’ve never had to cancel a season. 

They did have to call off the parade a few years ago because of rain. Look outside. You know how weather can be this time of year. Morris went down to St. Margaret’s, where kids and parents gather, to deliver the bad news to the uninformed.

“We told some people who did assemble that the parade was canceled,” Morris said. “We had kids crying.”

Imagine how it would feel to lose an entire season. No house leagues. No travel teams. Jim Daley, who runs travel for HNPYBL, said a July return could knock out some of the travel schedule. It’s a big deal for the high-end players. There are more than 20 travel teams for boys and girls at Shoshone.

“All options are on the table for that,” said Daley. “What I’m hearing from parents is they want to play even if it’s a five week travel season in September and early October.”

That’s no consolation for the majority of kids, who want to play now and were looking forward to the parade and the openers on the six diamonds.  So John Hornung, the league vice president, organized a food drive to give kids and parents an outlet on parade day.

“Saturday we’re holding a food drive for FeedMore Western New York,” said Hornung, who played baseball at Shoshone and has had three children play there. “We’re very discouraged because we can’t have the parade. That’s part of the fun of playing in the league, walking down Hertel with all the kids.

“I walked in that damn parade for a bunch of years. It definitely means a lot to a lot of people, so we want to keep that vibe going.”

Parents will drive the kids into the parking lot on Saturday. The players, dressed in their uniforms, will hand out donations of food to league officials. It’s not much of a parade, but it’s something, even if the weather report is bad.

“The weather looks like crap,” Hornung said. “Too bad it couldn’t have been last Saturday. It looks like 40 and rain.”

You know what would be great? If Major Brown showed up and donated some bubble gum.

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