If it is true that in sports we see a legitimate reflection of society, it is a shame where that venerable tradition of sandlot baseball has gone. I don’t mean Tee-Ball, Little League, Babe Ruth, Connie Mack, American Legion and all the like, I’m talking about a handful of kids, by their own volition, uttering those three little words, “Let’s play ball!” It was the code that superseded anything you may have had planned after school or anything your parents had scheduled for your summer activities. You would skip homework, chores, or after school cartoons if the gang was to congregate at the ball field. In this case I don’t mean the school’s ball field or the Parks and Recreation Department’s facility or really anything that resembled an actual baseball field.
The Diamond, when I was growing up, was a misnomer. Our neighborhood was the underdeveloped, third world nation of suburbia. We had blessedly been passed over by the wheels of progress and had several vacant lots of overgrown quack grass to choose from. The games were the lynch pin of the communal neighborhood and our rules and regulations were nebulous. If you could stand at the proposed home plate and hit the ball anywhere in fair territory and not break a window it was an acceptable arena for competition. At nine years old two fifty foot lots would serve well and if the playing field could be arranged with a neighbor’s fenced in yard as the left field wall, all the better.
Our bases consisted of a sweatshirt as first, a chunk of plywood as second and an old glove, a cinder block or someone’s little brother as third. Third was always the toughest base to slide into, the thought being if you made it this far, there was an extra price to pay. I started out as third base and when my little brother came along I broke him into the business. We all babysat on a rotating basis and our mother’s thought us near saintly to take the little squirts off their hands for a few hours. It was quite a sight when we would all show up with our siblings in tow. It was the only time you could stand at home plate and clearly see all the bases albeit just the tops of the little toe-heads. We did develop a standing rule that if you hit a “live” base it was an automatic out. We did learn a certain brand of ethics although we taught our little brothers and sisters to never reveal more than, “I played second base today, Mommy.”
Home plate was something of a divine artifact. It would travel with us from field to field, it being the only true constant in our game. Over the course of our journeys we would plop the plate down in late March or early April and there it would remain until the snow started flying in late fall or we spotted some adult pounding stakes in the ground, taking measurements for new home construction. We would then rescue it and begin our search for a new field. It was akin to a prehistoric clan in search of better hunting grounds with their sacred embers (our Home Plate) being the most important element of the trip. I recall someone’s dad cutting it out of a 3/4” piece of plywood to the actual dimensions of home plate and painting it white. Every so often some beneficent soul would slap some more whitewash on it and in a world of dirty sneakers, waterlogged baseballs, discarded bats with finishing nails and friction tape holding it together, torn blue jeans, greasy tee shirts and second hand gloves this white plate became the object of worship at our altar call. It remained with us through our youth; until like Jack and his Magic Dragon, we came no
The shaggy state of our field of dreams had to be reconciled so someone would smuggle their dad’s Briggs and Stratton to the “diamond” and plow down the baselines and the batting area and then a trail out to and around the pitcher’s mound. He would finish the manicure with a few circular spins around the rubber, which was more often than not just a scrap of two by four. The grounds keeper had the most hazardous job, not for fear of striking a stone or suffering a self-inflicted wound but by chance of being discovered by a family member and the truth be learned by his father that he actually knew how to operate the lawn mower. He would soon be appointed head groundskeeper at his house and that would curtail his playing time with us.
A good field might last a couple of years but in that time someone might claim the field as their own, unaware of the sacrosanct ground they were treading on, and build a fort or for no other reason, save boredom, start digging holes. What a surprise to be running toward the warning track (a mowed lawn which represented the outer limits of our playing field) and suddenly...WHOA!!! Smack dab and down into a shallow pit covered with sumac branches. The good news was you would find your neighbor’s (or older brother’s) Playboy Magazine and a pack of cigarettes buried in a jar. Not that I was into those things...yet...but it was fortuitous to have the goods on someone older than you who could be persuaded to lighten up on the bully act.
I think in the course of my career we may have fielded nine players on a side..how many times? Well, never. But we were creative. We had the standard “pitcher’s mound is out for first.” That eliminated the need for a first baseman. Anything right of second base was a foul ball (the opposite being the rule for left-handers). That took care of second and right field. An opponent would serve as catcher but don’t count on him to tag anybody out at the plate. That left a shortstop who covered third and a left fielder who, on the wings of Willie Mays, could cover center as well. It was three on three baseball. If an odd man showed up he would be “artificial catcher” until another straggler showed up and evened out the teams. It wasn’t until my older brother came back on furlough from double A ball in the dating league were we informed that the term was “official” catcher. What did we care? We were athletes, not academics. The game looked enormously populated when a parent would drive by and the alarm would be sounded and we would hurriedly instruct our bases to stand up and look happy.
What ended our playing days was not the mushrooming of houses in our neighborhood but as we got older we just outgrew our field. When hitting tennis balls in lieu of a waterlogged hardball became boring we instinctively knew it was time for a different game. Our game became “touch” football, which was true if assault and battery could be classified as a touch. That lasted for a while, then came basketball, which took us into high school; which in turn saw us graduate to cars, girls and the kids we used to be.
In this age of Liberalism, Me-ism, Pro-Choice, Civil Liberties, Always Question Authority and the concept of ever expanding personal freedoms there seems to have been a yoke or rigidity placed on the spirit of youth whether it be by over- indulgent/over-protective parents or the lure of mindless television and video games.
To have a quality, impromptu pick up game these days the following criteria must be met: One chaperone per every six players, a qualified coach/umpire, a city or township permit to engage in said recreation on municipal property, permission slips from parents as well as permission from the landowner, disclaimers, medical forms, rules and regulations of sandlot baseball, Title IX compliance and “artificially” approved bats, balls, gloves, helmets, sliding pads, batting gloves, eye black (for glare), tobacco simulated chewing gum, and get this, bases. Next thing you know we’ll be shipping the kids off to military school to teach them how to be spontaneous.