By Steve LaMontia, Director of Communications
72-year old Willie Rogers took over the helm of the East Metro Baseball League in Atlanta in 2017, after league president John Gambs passed away on September 24th of that year. The 18-over and 30-over league began in 2003 and has been under his supervision since that fateful day in 2017.
“I had been John’s umpire in chief for a long time and helped with duties whenever I could over his last few years,” said Rogers. “When John knew the end was near, he told me personally that he wanted me to take over the league and I of course have honored his plea. John was a father figure to me and so many others. John was loved so honoring his wishes was a no-brainer.”
In the current climate of a corona-virus lurking among us it hasn’t been a picnic for Willie, who has also been umpiring for 57 years. But he has been able to keep things together as they kicked off their season in Atlanta on June 1st, one of the first MSBL leagues on the roster to open their gates.
“We took into consideration the guidelines from the governor on down and also listened to all of the scientists. We waited until they loosened up the curfews, too. We were ready to go with our plans in place as soon as they announced a date for us.”
What procedures were implemented to satisfy state regulations and keep everybody safe?
“Our face masks aren’t mandatory but recommended, which seems to be the way a lot of states are headed. It’s pleasant to see some players and fans wearing them. Our social distancing requirements state that no more than five players can be in the dugout at a time, which leaves plenty of room in our huge dugouts. The umpire behind the plate also wears a mask. The league members voted against the umpire behind the mound so we’ll go with that for now and keep an eye on it.”
There were a few other precautions Willie took to ensure the safety of his players.
“Everyone has to sign a health waiver before they step foot on to the field. We instituted the usual rules of no licking fingers, no seeds or gum and hand sanitizer in the dugouts. Our infielders can’t go to the mound to talk to the pitcher but can get within social distancing guidelines to deliver their message. We didn’t put in the ‘no steal’ rule and play the actual game pretty much straight up. We’re all new to this so we will learn and adapt as we go.”
Willie hung up the cleats as a player, though he dusted them off last year for one game in honor of John. He continues to umpire on occasion but the duties of running the league take a lot of energy.
“Our league needs full time leadership right now so my hands are full, just like everyone’s across the country. We have had some field issues but are able to play on a field that only allows us time for one game per night. It isn’t a complex where we can play multiple games so we have expanded to five nights per week for one game to accommodate the players. We can’t afford to get too backed up until other fields open up.”
Willie and the EMBL has a pretty ideal landscape of teams in each division, too.
“We are fortunate to have six teams in each age division. It’s a perfect setup for scheduling and keeping everyone happy. In John’s day we had a 35-over division but we lowered it to 30-over to give the younger division somewhere to naturally advance to. Maybe down the road we can add an older division, too.
We run through mid-October and then have playoffs so we offer plenty of baseball. I have been working at trying to arrange exhibition games with some of our other MSBL leagues in the area but that hasn’t happened yet. Maybe soon.”
Willie also sends some players to the MSBL Fall Classic in Florida in November.
“We were planning on assembling an all-star team this year and heading to the MSBL World Series in Arizona but it’s an economic struggle right now for some guys so we have to put that on the shelf this year but we’ll get there.”
I asked Willie if he had any additional comments regarding the playing restrictions and additional safety measures. He was quick to answer.
“This game is a beautiful game, but it’s not worth one man’s life by not being careful.”
Well said, Willie.