COATS — A hot, sticky evening at Coats Municipal Park not only signified the official onset of summer on Monday, but also served as a symbolic backdrop for the return of live sports to Harnett County.
Coats Parks and Recreation Director Mike Collins wiped sweat from his forehead, then tears from his eyes, after describing what he called a "heart-warming" opening night to the department's adult co-ed softball league.
"It was overwhelming ... and very rewarding," said an emotional Collins. "I don't do it for me. I do it for their (participants) enjoyment. I really get a satisfaction from them enjoying the facilities, the program and everything that goes along with it."
Homers were belted, runs were scored and winners were credited. But for participants like Melvin's Roofing owner Matthew Melvin, the chance to briefly escape pressures and anxiety amid the toughest year in recent history far outweighs any game results.
"It felt nice to get out there and use your body a little bit and see some people again," said Melvin, whose team defeated T.P. Woodworks 3-0. "Honestly, it felt like normal life again. Sports is the one thing that brings us all together."
Players ranging from their 20s well into their 40s shared laughs during gaffs and roared with congratulations during highlight-reel moments. Melvin's Roofing co-captain Sammy Holt noted initial rust and apprehension at the onset that shifted to a familiarly competitive environment.
"Very few people knew what to expect from themselves until they first swung or first caught that ball, or running to catch for the first time," said Holt. "Then there was a lot less tension after that.
As soon as you touch the dirt ... you forget about everything else. If you have aches and pains, that dirt cures it. So, it's great."
Collins pointed to the fact that the league gives some players a face-to-face interaction that they've missed since being forced to work from home the past three months. He also highlighted the implementation of new rules to lessen the risk of spreading the coronavirus and had all players sign a waiver before taking the field.
"Everybody has complied to the fullest. Every player has been very respectful and respected everyone else's space ... at the end of the night, I think these folks are happy to be engaged in something that's meaningful, but is a distraction from the normal day-to-day stuff," said Collins.
Additional safety precautions include:
"They had a few rules to make it safer for everybody, which was great," said Holt. "It's just trying to remember them because you're so used to a certain set of rules ... but once we get into the flow of that, it'll become second nature."
One of the more contentious adjustments during this time is the disallowance of fans to watch games because of current state-mandated restrictions that ban crowds of more than 25 people outdoors.
"Obviously, not everybody agreed. We would love to have family and friends out here watching ... but I think we all wanted to get back to playing," said Melvin. "Although we didn't like it, we were willing to abide by it just to make sure it happened."
Collins says it was a tough decision, but feels it was necessary to keep everyone in attendance safe. He added that he looks forward to welcoming spectators once restrictions loosen in the near future.
"It is a key element in the player experience. This is a small community," Collins said of crowd participation. "That's what makes this whole thing come together is when parents, grandparents, uncles and everybody come to watch these folks play," said Collins.
"It's an adjustment, but I think from this point forward, we will do nothing but enhance this program."
In the night's other contests, Ann Milton defeated Clayton Homes 15-7 and Custom Heating Air topped HAVOC 8-3.
Donnell Coley can be reached at 910 230-2040 or firstname.lastname@example.org