Heat Wave Tests Youth Baseball

RUSTON, La. (AP) -- With field temperatures soaring above 150 degrees at times, 10-year-old baseball player Emmitt Anderson and his teammates from Alabama thought better of kneeling when they gathered near the mound for pregame prayers at a recent regional youth baseball tournament here.

"It was too hot on our knees," Anderson said of the artificial surface. "We just stood up."

High heat proved considerably harder to handle than fastballs up in the strike zone at the DYB World Series this week. Temperatures reached 105 degrees, with the heat index topping out at 117.

Some spectators and umpires required treatment for heat-related symptoms. A few passed out and were briefly hospitalized.

"The heat was so extreme, I just knew it was a matter of time before something happened," said Dr. Kelsey Steensland, an anesthesiologist from Dothan, Alabama, who was there to watch her 10-year-old son, Finn, play for a team representing their state.

During opening ceremonies, she rushed to help an elderly woman who'd collapsed and didn't regain consciousness for several minutes.

"This was a medical emergency," Steensland said. "It was more than just giving someone a glass of water."

With climate change driving average global temperatures higher, organizers, players and spectators taking part in quintessentially American traditions such as midsummer youth baseball championships are having to pay closer attention to the heat -- and become more resourceful about mitigating its effects.

A case in point is the DYB World Series, which features teams from 11 Southern states competing in multiple age groups up to 12 years old. Formerly known as Dixie Youth Baseball, DYB was established in 1955.

"The number one priority to any event that anybody puts on outdoors is the safety and health of the participants," DYB Commissioner William Wade said. "We've got to do the best we can to preach whatever safety we can."

Large evaporative coolers -- which pull air over water to cool it before blowing it back out -- were placed in dugouts. It was the first time B.J. Branigan, who coached a team from the New Orleans area, had ever seen that.

During the first four days of the six-day tournament, when temperatures were hottest, games were halted every two innings for five-minute "heat breaks." Cases of water were supplied to coaches, players and umpires.

Many also wore wet cooling towels on the back of their necks.

Sail shades over the stands helped keep fans out of direct sunlight at the Ruston Sports Complex -- a newly built facility that drew widespread praise from tournament participants and attendees. But some expressed concern over the way the artificial turf fields, "infilled" with black rubber pellets for cushioning, became so hot at times that one could easily see air rippling from convection just above the surface.

"One day they advised us that the temp was 167 on the field -- and it felt like it," umpire Tim Ward said, noting that he'd never been so hot in 25 years of calling balls and strikes. "You couldn't stand still. You had to keep moving or your shoes would start getting soft on the bottom, and the heat was radiating up into you."

Ward was behind home plate that day, wearing a mask and chest protector, and passed out between innings.

He came into the dugout, and was taken soon after by ambulance to a hospital. He missed one day of games and returned to umpire again before the tournament ended.

Any proposal to cancel or postpone the event would have been met with considerable opposition. It was getting close to the start of the school year for some players and these were their highest-stakes games of the season. Parents and grandparents had booked hotels and traveled from as far as Virginia.

Spectators tried to adapt on the fly.

Many showed up with hand-pulled wagons to move newly purchased, lithium-ion battery powered misting fans to seating areas, where they were rigged to buckets of water.

"I've never experienced any kind of heat like this before. You can feel your eyes drying out," said Steensland, who watched games with a misting fan pointed at her and her 7-month-old daughter.

"You're either prepared or you're not," she said. "And the people that come prepared have a wagon full of hundreds of dollars of equipment --- chairs, fans, tents. You have to have industrial grade fans to get through temperatures like this."

Dr. Jonathan Scott, an obstetrician from Dothan, said he treated "a grandmother" who passed out from the heat in the stands near him. People sitting nearby caught her in time to prevent her from falling. They cooled her down with ice and "she came to pretty quickly for us," he said.

"This is the hottest any of us can remember," said Scott, whose 10-year-old son, Davis, is an outfielder.

Scott purchased and set up two large misting fans to augment four hand-held fans he already had. He also brought five gallons of ice water "to get through the games." Still, Scott said his clothes were "soaked through" from sweat when games ended.

Kevin Murphy, the father of a 12-year-old player from Livingston, Texas, called the heat during the tournament "brutal."

To combat it, he had a device that pulled air through a cooler full of ice and blew it out through a flexible tube. He said he'd been using it regularly at games in Texas, as well.

"Rain, shine, hot, snow -- whatever it takes," Murphy said. "We're going to be here watching these kids and they're going to be out here playing. They love it."

During opening ceremonies, the featured guest speaker was Louisiana Tech baseball coach Lane Burroughs. He tried to mentally prepare players and their families by noting, "It's August in Louisiana. ... We're going to have to dominate those elements, won't we?"

Casey Anderson, Emmitt's father, smiled as he recalled that pep talk.

"I don't know about dominating," he said. "More like enduring and surviving."

But parents and coaches said they heard virtually no complaints from the kids, who seemed thrilled to have a chance to end their season at the marquee event of every DYB season.

"They were champs about it," Branigan said. "The hardest part was keeping the kids from wanting to go back on the field before the five-minute (heat) break was up.

"We just preached fluids, stay by the cool air (from the evaporative cooler), put the cooling towels on you and take advantage of the five-minute break," Branigan said. "That was as much as you could do to guard against the heat."