One of the best Santa Barbara Forester teams is about to play baseball in the worst of times.
The Foresters, seven-time champions of the National Baseball Congress World Series, will open its summer collegiate season at Pershing Park on Wednesday at 6 p.m. against the Inland Empire Buccaneers.
“On paper, this could be one of the best teams we’ve ever had,” manager Bill Pintard said, citing a roster that features Team USA members and NCAA All-Americans.
The COVID-19 pandemic has complicated Pintard’s 26th year at the helm. The coronavirus prompted the Foresters’ 10-team league — the California Collegiate League — to call off its season four weeks ago.
Pintard decided to plug on as an independent team, cobbling together a 36-game schedule. All of the Foresters’ games will be played at Pershing Park except those at a tournament being organized by the Lincoln Potters on Aug. 5-9.
“It’s been a real great group effort involving City College, city parks, and our staff and supporters,” Pintard said. “It’s taken long hours trying to determine what players are coming and who’s not coming, and what the restrictions we play under are going to be.”
One those restraints forbids spectators, even along the outfield fence.
“The city is going to put up signs,” Pintard pointed out. “I think the best sign I’ve seen so far was at a beach. It said, ‘A crowded beach will become a closed beach.’ If people don’t respect that, and things get out of hand, I don’t know if we would be allowed to play.
“We fought so hard to get back on the field, but we have to do it under safe conditions. Hopefully, at some point, we will be able to open up the outfield fence for fans.”
The games will be streamed live on a pay-for-view basis on the club’s website, sbforesters.org. Audio coverage will be available at kcsb.org/sports and running statistics will be provided by iscorecentral.com.
Establishing the COVID-19 protocol before Wednesday’s opener has had Pintard scrambling.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever ordered face masks as part of the uniform package, and they’re not catchers’ masks,” he said. “We’re going to keep our players as separated as possible, and they’ll be wearing masks when they’re not at least 6 feet apart.
“Each player has to have his own bats and helmets. In the event there is a team bat, it’ll need to be sanitized between uses.”
Stations for washing and sanitizing hands have been set up in each dugout, and the players will have their temperatures taken before every game.
The coronavirus made it difficult for Pintard to find host families for his players. He decided to move forward with the season, however, when booster Ed St. George offered to house 18 of the players in his apartment units.
“If it weren’t for him, we wouldn’t be able to do this,” Pintard said.
The 30-man roster includes players from 16 colleges from as far away as Vanderbilt in Tennessee.
Five of this year’s Foresters come from UCLA including All-America shortstop Matt McLain. He batted just under .400 with three home runs and 19 RBIs in 13 games before COVID-19 ended his season.
“The left side of our infield is Team USA,” Pintard said. “McLain was a first-round pick of the Arizona Diamondbacks (in 2018), and Peyton Graham (of Oklahoma) is going to play in the big leagues someday.”
Many summer teams shut down operations when the coronavirus made it too difficult to secure a field. Pintard and his coaching staff didn’t wait to get Pershing Park, a joint-use facility operated by SBCC and the city of Santa Barbara, into game shape.
“We’ve been working on it for two months, hoping we’d get to play, since (SBCC coach) Jeff Walker had to shut down in March,” Pintard said. “The infield and the grass are looking a lot better. (Assistant coach) Steve Schuck has done a great job moving in dirt.”
The scarcity of teams has allowed Pintard to bring in some stellar talent, as well. Christian Franklin, the star center fielder of last year’s Foresters team, decided to return to Santa Barbara when the Cape Cod League canceled its season.
Also back from last year are pitchers Elijah Trest of Arkansas and Luke Taggart of Incarnate Wood. Oregon’s Caleb Sloan, who pitched for the Foresters in 2018, is returning, as well.
“We had an intrasquad game on Saturday, and all our pitchers were at 90 mph or above,” Pintard said.
His 16-pitcher staff includes Nick Nastrini, the UCLA ace who will start Wednesday’s opener.
“We’ve also got Cal State Fullerton’s Friday night starter (Kyle Luckham), Spencer Jones from Vanderbilt, and our Arkansas arms (Trest and Peyton Pallette),” Pintard pointed out.
He’s high on several “local” arms, as well: Santa Barbara High graduates Derek True and Bryce Warrecker, both of whom now pitch for Cal Poly, and UCSB’s Charlie Adamson, a redshirt freshman from Oaks Christian High.
Nick Oakley, a UCSB-bound shortstop from Santa Barbara High, is slated to play outfield for the Foresters. Pat Caulfield, a former SBCC star who batted .302 for UCLA this spring, will also be roaming the Pershing Park outfield for the next six weeks.
The National Baseball Congress is still planning to hold its 86th annual World Series, but the Foresters won’t be making the trip.
“We’d be favored to go there and do some real damage, but it’s really hard getting sponsorship money these days,” Pintard said. “We’ve got to pay for the umpires, the field, the baseballs and bats. It’s hard to go to one of your sponsors — a restaurant that’s had to lay off people — and ask for money to make that trip
“I don’t have the heart to do that.”
His motivation in playing this summer wasn’t to win an eighth NBC World Series, he added.
“It’s just to give these guys the chance to play baseball in Santa Barbara this summer.”