While millionaire Major League Baseball players and billionaire team owners squabble over the sport's professional future, Gehrig Ebel is just happy to hear the crack of a bat — especially his own bat.
The recent Baylor School graduate and future Virginia Tech Hokie is about to play baseball for the first time in months, doing so in an Atlanta-area tournament as a member of the eXposure Baseball 18-under team. Having had his senior season with the Red Raiders canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Ebel was more than ready to hit the field and compete.
"I miss it a lot. For the most part, I didn't believe we were going to be able to do it," said Ebel, who was a key player on the Baylor teams that won back-to-back TSSSA Division II-AA state championships the past two years. "At the beginning of May, I thought there was no way we would play. I've been pretty bored. I can't wait to hang out with the team, them having your back and you having theirs and just competing together."
Brandon Turner, the founder of eXposure Baseball, has teams ranging in age groups from 8U to 18U and has, since the Chattanooga-based organization launched in 2014, sent some 300 players on to the next level. Thirty-five more, including Ebel and former Baylor teammate Colin Ahearn, who is bound for Tennessee, will join those ranks this year.
Turner said those class of 2020 signees will use the 40 to 50 games they play this summer to knock the rust off and hopefully hit the ground running in what is expected to be a very competitive 2021 college season.
"We usually go to seven tournaments, and each is usually a four-game guarantee, but if you win you could play eight to 10 games in any given tournament," said Turner, who took a 13U squad to Panama City, Florida, this past weekend for the first tournament of the summer slate.
"We usually get in 35 to 40 games. This summer we will probably go a little bit longer because none of them were able to play high school ball this spring, so we want to give them as much playing time as we can."
The summer may be even bigger for the class of 2021. With the NCAA's decision to let spring sports athletes have an extra year of eligibility and with MLB's amateur draft reduced to five rounds this year, college rosters will be crowded. Athletes in the 2021 class without offers, or those looking to improve their status, will use this summer to try to impress scouts.
Turner, a former college coach at Tennessee Tech University, realizes the situation is unique, and he and his large staff have plans to get as much exposure for his players as possible.
"We are kind of relied on more now than we ever have been because colleges can't go out right now with the dead period being extended," Turner said of the NCAA's decision to suspend in-person contact and on-campus visits through July 31. "We're having to be a little more creative with more video and sending them out to our contacts to get the wheels started.
"The 2021 class is the bigger priority right now for colleges. We want to promote them as much as we can. I get the reason why the NCAA did it, but I think it muddied up the waters a bit too much. How can they mandate you can only have 35 guys on a team when you already have a recruiting class and you have all these guys coming back? I've talked to tons of college coaches, and while they believe it's great the kids get the year back, in a lot of ways it's made their jobs a lot harder."
Another focus for Turner and all summer coaches is keeping the athletes safe. If the tournament in Panama City is any indication, Turner believes everything is being done to protect players, families and ballpark workers from contracting the coronavirus.
"That new complex in Panama City had it worked out great," Turner said. "They had places marked where you could be and couldn't be. Certain seats would be taped off, and other places would be grouped together for members of a family to sit together. They had hand sanitizer all over the place, and masks were available. At the concession stands, you couldn't use cash and you had to swipe the card.
"Overall, I felt everybody was doing as much as they possibly could. After games, you no longer shake hands. We just kind of tipped our caps and went on our way. It's definitely different, but it feels like we're getting at least a little of what we had back. We have to make sure we do everything we can so that this thing doesn't take back off."
Ebel and his parents are comfortable with the precautions, so now it's just time to suit up and take out several months' worth of frustration on a few baseballs.
"I feel we will be fine," Ebel said. "There will be enough safety regulations to keep us safe. I just can't wait to be out there again."