The McHenry County Youth Sports Association’s Summer International Championships return Friday, a year after the summertime baseball tournament was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The games will go on, but the pandemic still is having a big impact on the tournament, which has become a yearly staple in McHenry County and attracts teams from all over the nation and world, including numerous players who have gone on to play professionally.
White Sox slugger Eloy Jimenez and Cary’s Quinn Priester, the 2019 MLB first-round draft pick of the Pittsburgh Pirates, are only a few of the most notable alumni to compete in the summer classic.
MCYSA tournament executive director Dan Malone was hoping to significantly increase the number of international teams participating this year, but the ongoing pandemic and travel restrictions made that impossible.
Teams from Japan, Italy, China, Mexico and Brazil were committed to come, while teams from the Netherlands and Columbia also expressed interest in joining the field for the first time. Puerto Rico is the only international team scheduled to participate this year, with a contingent of about 100 players and coaches arriving Tuesday night.
Since the tournament’s inaugural year in 1993, other international teams have included the Dominican Republic, Russia, Guam, Sri Lanka, Aruba, New Zealand, Bonaire, Canada, Panama and Lithuania.
“It was an extreme challenge,” Malone said of putting together this year’s field. “We had Japan, we had Italy, we had China, we had Mexico, we had Brazil committed to come. ... The pandemic pretty much eliminated all of them except for Puerto Rico.
“We were looking to double the number of international teams but we’re really hoping they’ll come out next year. We’re going to make a really big effort to make it as easy as possible for them to get here.”
Not counting Puerto Rico, the teams making the farthest trip for this year’s tournament are from San Diego and Alameda, California. In addition to local teams and Illinois, teams from Wisconsin and Iowa also will be represented across the 11U, 13U and 15U levels.
“Participation of teams is down probably 30%,” said Malone, who starts planning for the next year’s tournament in August. “We had a lot of teams sign up last year and we were pretty much full. Being nonprofit, and just because it’s the right thing to do, we sent everybody their money back.
“To have a year’s worth of effort postponed, it was really disappointing for everyone. I know it was most disappointing for the kids and teams that were really looking forward to playing international teams. If you missed your 15U year, that’s it. You missed it.”
Malone knows of only one other youth baseball tournament in the U.S. that attracts international teams. Some teams, such as Japan, take the competition very seriously. According to mcysasports.org, the Japan Little Senior Baseball Association selects one team from about 25,000 junior high school students to play at the 15U level each year.
“It’s an experience that you just can’t get anywhere else,” Malone said. “It’s interesting to see all of the teams come together and how they react to different norms. The international teams all play a different style. Puerto Rico is very boisterous, brings tambourines, noise makers, and they’re very loud. Japan quietly slices and dices you up. It’s a heck of a challenge to play them. It’s a big deal.”
Although this year’s tournament will lack some of the normal international flair, Malone still encourages everyone to come out and support the players, coaches, sponsors and volunteers.
The Opening Ceremonies for Session 1 takes place at 7 p.m. Friday, which includes a parade of teams and fireworks. Armed Forces Night takes place at 6:45 p.m. Sunday and the Opening Ceremonies for Session 2 takes place at 7:15 p.m. Thursday, which includes the announcement of the inductees into the MCYSA Hall of Fame and recipients of the Justin Schroeder Memorial Scholarship, which has awarded more than $90,000 to players and volunteers since 2003.
“The baseball is still going to be fantastic,” Malone said. “If we have great weather, it’s a heck of an experience for everyone, and it makes a great economic impact on our community.”
Schedules, results and information about the tournament can be found at mcysasports.org.