“Every boy in America is playing baseball and if he ain’t, he ain’t a boy.” A sportswriter’s observation at the start of the twentieth century. It was a time when every town, every company, every organization and, if there were enough siblings, every family had its own team. What happened to that excitement of the crack when ball meets wooden bat? Where did we lose that wonderful afternoon when every kid on the field knew when to bunt, when to hit-and-run, when to hit the cut-off man? What happened to our game?
I read about the Holbrook Little League in Jackson NJ. About the misappropriation of funds. And I’m bothered less about the theft than the funds themselves. If there’s a crime, it will get resolved in court; but just the fact that hundreds of thousands of dollars flow through this field of dreams is somehow out of whack. Four grand simply to go to Williamsport for the Little League World Series? Two hundred forty bucks just to register to play the game? And the other costs: $400 for an aluminum bat; $200 for a mitt; a ball costs $40! Forget about the indispensable $80 bat bag and $30 batting glove.
This is a game? I don’t think so! It’s a monstrous corporate steamship that leaves in its wake the discarded treasure of boyhood. How inspirational to see kids playing baseball the way it was meant to be. On a playground, in a schoolyard, an open field, even a city lot. Boys being boys. Each one playing every position and not destined to be a catcher at age six. Arguing over whether the runner is safe or out because the base is only a scratched-out box in the dirt. Stretching a single into a double and not caring if he gets thrown out. What does it matter if he pops up to the pitcher when he’ll get up again next inning and no one knows what inning it is anyway. The game’s not over until the kid with the ball has to go home.
Many years ago on the playground at Clifton Avenue Grade School in Lakewood New Jersey, we played baseball. The minute school got out and the word “promoted” was penned on the report card, the only thing in the world that mattered was baseball. Everyday, all day, all summer. Rules and rosters changed not only day to day, but sometimes inning to inning. Not enough guys? – invisible runner on first. That way the shortstop could still turn a double play, assuming, of course, he got to second before the invisible man. Only two outfielders? – no hitting to right. No catcher? -Fine. No stealing.
Teams were chosen daily and sometimes obviously unbalanced. The movie “The Natural” was probably based on my buddy Mike. An incredibly gifted southpaw, batting from the left side of the plate, he was an automatic homer. It wasn’t fair; so we made him bat righty. If Chippy, another prized player, came late, we’d fight over who got him. At times, because when it came to coordination my eye and hand were complete strangers, I would be “chucked” (forced to sit out) to make room for Chippy. No, it doesn’t build self-esteem (that would have to come later and for different reasons), but it did nurture a sense of perseverance. I’d get back in when one kid had to leave or another showed up.
It’s a game! You don’t “work” at it. You don’t practice it. You PLAY it! Your parents don’t cash in their 401K for it; and you’re allowed to stink. You’re allowed to stink and keep trying until you stink less or maybe don’t stink at all.
Could be we’re just the victims of our own affluence. All those Latin American major leaguers, they grew up sharing any available clearing with the resident iguanas and kids of lesser talent. With no baseline coaches to tell them when to or when not to run, it becomes instinctive. Rounding second to a chorus from the bench, “Take third, take third, take third”! And then an instant later when the throw comes in from right, “Go back, go back, go back”!
I have grandsons so I see my share of Little League games. I see the kid out in right field with ear-plugs in. I see the first baseman out of position asking his Mom in the stands to get him a Gatorade. I want to chuck them both. The chatter of the game is lost. No other sport boasts such rhythmic inane encouragement. “No batta’; no batta’, no batta’.” “Chuck it in. Chuck it in. Chuck it in.” “One more. One More. One More.” Always in groups of three. I think that’s the rule.
Sure, baseball itself has evolved. Not necessarily in a good way. Ballgames routinely run over three hours. If a starter can manage five innings, he’s the ace of the rotation. After that there’s a parade of relievers; it seems like every batter gets his own pitcher. The game has taken on all the excitement of going through customs.
The injection of adults into a game is like an unnecessary operation. You got it but you don’t need it. It works so much better when, after a long hot day, you shuffle home and tell your Dad how you got ten hits, three doubles, and even a triple. How you backhanded a grounder at short and threw Donnie out from center field. And then he’d smile, tousle your hair, and say “That’s my boy”. Times like that – nobody stinks!