BILLINGS — Helena is out and Billings is in as the host site for next week's Montana Class AA American Legion state baseball tournament.
The tournament was originally scheduled to begin Wednesday at Helena's Kindrick Legion Field, but health officials in Lewis and Clark County ultimately did not provide approval due to ongoing concerns over the coronavirus pandemic. Montana/Alberta Legion baseball chairman Ron Edwards confirmed the move to 406mtsports.com on Saturday.
Edwards said the health department informed the Helena Senators, the city's Class AA club, on Friday of its decision to disallow the tournament to go on as scheduled.
Helena "had submitted their plan and had not gotten an answer back, so that had gotten everybody on edge a little bit," Edwards said during a phone interview from Bozeman. "We got a letter submitted from the county health office to the Helena Senators late in the day that said they weren't going to allow the event to happen."
The Lewis and Clark County health department had previously shuttered softball and youth baseball tournaments in the area, Edwards said.
The seven-team, Montana-only tournament is scheduled to begin Wednesday and conclude next Sunday, with all games being played at Dehler Park in Billings.
Edwards said he hoped a bracket would be finalized on Saturday.
Edwards said Montana Legion baseball administrators and coaches originally decided on Helena to host the tournament because it was a centralized location, but that Billings provides a viable backup option.
Last year's state tournament, won by Bozeman, was held at Dehler Park.
"Dehler Park is a big ballpark, and distancing works pretty well in a venue of that size," Edwards said. "When you think of options and where you can move a AA tournament and play it, Billings kind of rises to the top. But we don't take lightly just picking up and moving a state tournament. It's not something that's easy to do."
As of Saturday morning, Yellowstone County has the most confirmed active COVID-19 cases in Montana with 505, according to the official state website. Lewis and Clark County had confirmed 61 active cases.
Jeff Ballard, chairman of the Billings American Legion baseball program, said the state tournament is met with the approval of Yellowstone County's public health officials.
"We're already approved to play at Dehler. We have been approved to play at Dehler all summer," Ballard said during a phone interview Saturday. "There's nothing to do. We're already approved."
Ballard said the tournament will implement the same protocols the BALB has used all season: social distancing with the option for wearing masks at the outdoor venue.
"We haven't had any issues," he said. "Our parents have worked very hard to follow all the protocols. We have no worries. It's all going to be fine.
"With the grandstands we have the ability to spread out and socially distance between households, which is great."
The fate of the Montana/Alberta Legion season was in flux in the spring due to coronavirus, but the seven Montana teams — the Billings Royals and Scarlets, Helena, Missoula, Bozeman, Great Falls and Kalispell — managed to play a Class AA season with few glitches, save for a six-team memorial tournament in Missoula that was shut down in late June.
Now the teams are preparing to crown a champion next week, which might have seemed dubious five months ago no matter where the tournament was going to be held.
"I think it's really great for the boys, especially the seniors in the state, that they have a summer where they've played for something and they're going to finish it off with something that's meaningful," Ballard said.
"It's very rewarding for the players. I know they're very thankful that they've been able to play because a lot of other places weren't so willing."
Email Greg Rachac at Greg.Rachac@406mtsports.com or follow him on Twitter at @gregrachac
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