RIDGEFIELD – At the end of a recent practice, baseball players from Clark College simulated a game-winning hit.
The runner tore around the bases, slid into home plate and was mobbed by his ecstatic teammates.
It didn’t matter that the jerseys they wore didn’t represent their school, but rather the club team NW Star.
It didn’t matter that the field wasn’t on Clark College’s campus, where the team hasn’t been able to use the baseball facilities ever since the school announced two weeks ago it was canceling spring sports due to COVID-19.
Moments of joy like that at Ridgefield Outdoor Recreation Complex are why 41 Clark baseball players are determined to take a swing at having a season this spring.
For those ballplayers, playing as an independent club team against any opponent they can find takes the sting off a Clark College decision they disagree with adamantly.
“I would say we were pretty shocked,” said Clark sophomore Jack Fletcher. “We were confused. We’ve been following the guidelines all year, and then for that to happen, it just came out of nowhere.”
In its decision, Clark College’s administration said surveys of Northwest community college presidents left too much ambiguity in how testing, contact tracing and transportation would take place for Clark to feel comfortable going forward with athletics.
The decision put Clark at odds with most of the Northwest Athletic Conference’s 36 schools, only five of which have decided not to play sports this spring.
NWAC Executive Director Marco Azurdia said the conference has not documented any cases of COVID-19 transmission resulting from a practice or competition involving conference teams.
Add in that high school athletics have returned to play across Southwest Washington, and Clark’s decision sounds more bewildering to Penguins baseball coach Mark Magdaleno.
“In March of last year, the science took us off the field and rightfully so,” Magdaleno said. “Now, that same science is telling us we should be on the field. You can’t pick and choose when to use science. I have compassion for people who make decisions, but I don’t have to agree with them. If you’re going to use science, then use it all the time.”
Parents mount campaign
Parents of Clark baseball players have also gotten involved, writing dozens of emails to college administrators urging the reinstatement of spring sports or, at least, more clarity in the reasoning behind the decision.
They are also considering legal action. Though it’s not clear what course any lawsuit would take, the parents have started a legal fund and raised $2,000.
“They haven’t given us a reason as to why the season was canceled,” said Russ Martineau, one of the parents who has written to Clark administrators. “It seems like kind of a knee-jerk reaction. They didn’t investigate this thoroughly.”
In an email to The Columbian, Clark College spokesperson Kelly Love said Clark athletes will soon be allowed to use school facilities for practice, training and scrimmages. But no games will happen because the school has concerns about safety protocols at other colleges.
“It’s one thing to have our athletes practicing within Clark’s own bubble, where we can monitor using our existing protocols, including daily health screenings, temperature checks, social distancing, and face coverings,” Love said. “However, we concluded that to have our athletes outside the bubble, playing against other teams that may not be using the same rigid protocol, presented a risk to their health and safety.
“For Clark, testing was the most critical question to resolve. Unfortunately, with NWAC’s March 1 deadline pending, we felt we could not adequately address this question in that timeframe.”
Making the best of it
Magdaleno’s cellphone call history reads like a roster of Northwest college baseball coaches. He has been reaching out to any team that might have an open day to squeeze in a game against his team, which will play as NW Star.
So far, Magdaleno has booked games in April against Oregon Tech, Eastern Oregon University, College of Idaho and Corban University. The NWAC has also given permission for the team to scrimmage against other schools in the conference.
A road trip to play games in Arizona is also being considered. A “pro day” for scouts from four-year colleges and major league clubs will happen in April.
It’s all designed to give Clark players something they would have missed with no games this spring – a chance to advance their baseball careers. In Magdaleno’s four years at Clark, 42 players have earned scholarships at four-year colleges.
“Personally, I just want to play as many games as possible,” said sophomore Noah Guyette, a Skyview grad who transferred to Clark after one year at Air Force. “That way, even if there’s no fans we can still get film on all of us to help us get recruited.”
Chris Gissell, Clark College’s pitching coach who reached the major leagues with the Colorado Rockies in 2004, praised Magdaleno’s efforts to find opportunities for his players.
“I’ve never seen a coach working as hard as Mags these past few months,” Gissell said. “He’s been tugged back and forth.”
Gissell said COVID restrictions and the upheaval in the Portland area during the past year are a reason he’s moving his family and his baseball training business, Baseball Dudes, from Vancouver to Texas.
“I’m a firm believer that everything in life happens for a reason,” said Gissell. “My advice to those players is to keep on going. Don’t change your work ethic and approach just because you have a different jersey on.”
That attitude is powering the team. None of Clark’s 41 players quit on this season even after the college pulled the plug.
“I think it shows how resilient Clark baseball is,” Guyette said. “Once they canceled us, nobody was going to quit on Coach Mags. It’s been really stressful on us because we didn’t know whether we were playing or not. Everybody out here, we just want to play baseball.”