CHAMPAIGN — Mike Namoff is approaching 20 years of involvement with the Champaign Dream youth baseball organization he helped create.
All that time has given the Champaign man plenty of opportunities to offer lessons to kids of various ages, via the group’s 8U through 18U teams.
Some of that guidance is baseball-related. Some of it isn’t.
Namoff has spent a lot more time operating in the latter department this summer than he ordinarily might, a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“My daughter’s a third-grade teacher, and her kids have to wear a mask and gloves,” Namoff said. “I’m thankful I was able to coach these kids and teach them about what’s going on right now — not to touch each other and to keep your distance.”
Namoff, who manages the Dream’s 8U club, was among the adults overseeing Wednesday’s 2021 tryouts for 8U, 9U, 10U and 11U athletes, held at Zahnd Park in Champaign.
The Champaign Park District granted the Dream permission to use that space in southwest Champaign, and the Dream will do so again this upcoming Wednesday for 12U, 13U and 14U tryouts.
Player interest, according to Namoff, is strong despite COVID-19’s grip on the nation.
“The numbers for 8s, 9s, 10s and 11s are better than we’ve ever had, really,” Namoff said. “I thought it would be the opposite. I thought, ‘Man, I don’t know if people are going to sign up.’
“But I think so many people missed out on everything this year that there’s a hope for next year.”
The Dream hasn’t closed up shop for 2020 either.
The option to play ball or not was provided to the roughly 140 families associated with the Dream’s various teams as travel events began popping up in Illinois’ neighboring states during June.
The Dream’s 11U team did not take to the field, but the other Dream squads all are in session. That includes the 8U group that Namoff manages.
With most of the Dream’s players suiting up, they’ve been bound to experience some unique situations brought on by response to the pandemic.
One such moment occurred for the Dream’s 12U unit, which participated in a Mississippi-based tournament in June.
Involved teams, Namoff was told, were limited to four kids per dugout with others spread out along the left- and right-field fences.
Going to such lengths to give kids the chance to play baseball has Namoff feeling a bit conflicted about his role.
“As a coach, I was always a mentor toward the kids and always taught the kids for the last 20 years,” Namoff said, “and now if you’re on a field, you almost look like the bad guy.”
But Namoff also believes he’d be “the bad guy” if he didn’t give his families the choice of letting their kids play baseball.
A big reason for that: the pocketbook.
“I told everybody, ‘Hey, everybody paid a lot of money here,’” Namoff said. “When you pay for tournaments, they don’t give you your money back. They give you credit toward the next year. The biggest thing is, how do I give the parents some bang for their buck during this pandemic. And what it’s been is a July-heavy season.”
Namoff has been fascinated by the varying levels of interest in continuing travel baseball among those who participate.
“None of us has ever been in this spot before. It’s such a crazy learning experience that we’re learning on the fly and learning lessons as we go,” Namoff said. “It was interesting that we were completely shut down (from attending travel tournaments in Illinois), and then June 15 I went to Sikeston, Missouri, and there was like 75 teams there (for a tournament). Just two hours any direction it was full speed.”
Throughout the pandemic, Namoff continued private training sessions with kids, two at a time in his family home’s front yard. And when the local park district said OK to the Dream commencing its 2021 tryouts, Namoff and Co. jumped at the chance.
Even though groups of up to 50 are permitted in one place at a time, Namoff said the Dream staff still had athletes break up into significantly smaller groups and utilize multiple different buckets of baseballs for workouts. Attending parents also were required to socially distance.
Speaking of parents, some of the Dream’s kids have parents in the medical field.
To Namoff, it provides a level of comfort in everything the Dream does despite surrounding uncertainty.
“I have three nurses on my team, so the catcher’s gear got wiped down and all precautions were taken,” Namoff said. “Once July hit, I had a talk with all my families and even the three nurses were like, ‘Let’s go.’”