CORTEZ – Telluride said yes. At the last minute, it said no. So, Montezuma County jumped at the chance to step in and host the Telluride Baseball Festival wood bat baseball tournament this week.
Action began Thursday at the Parque de Vida complex in Cortez as well as Boyle Park in Mancos. In all, 33 teams were placed into five different divisions representing groups from ages 9 to 18. Championship games will be played Sunday.
Telluride rescinded approval of the annual tournament July 15, as COVID-19 cases continued to climb in Colorado and Gov. Jared Polis issued a mask mandate.
“With state guidance strongly discouraging recreational sports that require extensive travel, movement/travel being a major cause for increased cases, and the existing tax of the pandemic response on our community, I need to rescind our approval for your tournament to occur in San Miguel County,” San Miguel County Public Health Director Grace Franklin told the Southwest Wood Bat Classics. “From a public health perspective, it would not be safe for your participants or our county to engage in such a large event.”
SWWBC organizers quickly scrambled, and Montezuma County agreed to host the four-day event.
“Everything keeps getting canceled because of the virus, so it’s been great to get back out here,” said Cortez Freedom Cats coach Tim Passell, the head coach of Montezuma-Cortez High School’s varsity team. “When Telluride canceled, we were just like, ‘Please, we will play here.’ It’s great to be able to host.
“I hope this opens the eyes of the community and the city to see we can host teams from all over the nation here. We’re bringing in that sales tax, all the hotels are full, and it’s a great thing. We would love to host more tournaments.”
On the field, there were some noticeable modifications, including only one umpire who called balls and strikes from behind the pitcher’s mound so as to not add to the crowded home plate area with a batter and a catcher with social distancing precautions in mind.
“That is unique to this tournament,” said Durango senior pitcher Gage Mestas, who has played in five tournaments this year in Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas. “The other tournaments, we had a four-umpire staff. This is very different. The strike zone was everywhere due to the fact the umpire’s angle and not being behind the plate. It affected the game, I’d say. A few of my pitches were balls and got called strikes. I was thankful for that, but I’m sure the other team wasn’t.”
Mestas joined the Flat Bill Ducks 18U team out of Farmington for the tournament. The team was mostly made up of players from Piedra Vista High School. He pitched to a 5-3 win Friday against rival Barrel-Lag Baseball Academy, a team largely made up of Farmington High School players.
“I’ve been scurrying everywhere this summer looking for games, calling people and looking for stuff to get into so I can get some live at-bats and stay on top of my game,” said Mestas, who had his crucial junior season of high school baseball canceled by the COVID-19 pandemic and is seeking college scholarship offers.
Cortez had three teams enter the tournament, including much of the varsity high school team from Montezuma-Cortez. The Cortez Freedom Cats 18U team played strong Friday but dropped a 5-3 game to the Arizona Flying Squirrels, a team of players from Scottsdale and Phoenix.
“We’ve been practicing for awhile and only had four seniors go play in a showcase in Denver,” Passell said. “That’s about all the ball we’ve played. We have three teams in this weekend, and I’m impressed that we’re doing well against some of the top teams.”
Some of the Arizona players kept their hotel reservations in Telluride. Though they wish the tournament was still in the famed mountain town, they were simply happy to still make a summer trip to play in Colorado amidst a global pandemic.
“It’s nice staying up in Telluride. It’s an hour drive from the hotel to get to the games now, but being in Telluride is nice to get away from the 110 degree heat in Arizona,” said Arizona Flying Squirrels player Matt Stranton. “Seeing the difference in Telluride from last year to this year, you’re required to wear a mask in town and in the gondola, and there’s a lot less people in town.
“Playing in Telluride, it’s beautiful and the ball carries more, too. But here, it’s still Colorado baseball and really fun out here.”