Thursday, July 16, 2009

It's Just Baseball

There’s something going on in the park across the street from my house. It’s not like a little action in and around the tree-filled, grassy square that was once supposed to be home to a college campus is unusual.  Quite the contrary, it is a veritable hub of activity, with a great playground, basketball courts, a pavilion and gazebo and a lot of green space for kids, adults and families. The roads that surround and enter the park are favorites for walkers, bicyclists, dog owners and runners, and there’s even an ice skating rink in wintertime.
But recently, there’s been something else going on. Something downright American.
The little grass diamond on the east side of the park has been filled with a bunch of kids of varying ages playing the great American pastime. It’s not little league or farm league or pony league or, in fact, any league at all. There are no set teams, uniforms or even equipment, aside from gloves, a couple of bats and a ball.  
Except me, of course.  And I’m minding my own business.
Now, I’ve got nothing against “organized” baseball.  I played and coached it myself for years. But for the most part, my younger days were filled with the kind of pickup games I’m now seeing in action. We played during every school recess and, when summer hit, managed what must have been a full 164-game season between diversions and chores like swimming, bike riding, paper routes and lawn mowing.  We played in empty lots, backyards, streets and the same Wiley Park ball field I’ve been watching from my front porch.
But things change.  Over the years, a lot of parents (including us) started getting more directly involved with each and every aspect of their children’s lives. I can remember, as a little league coach, watching a crowd of parents got way over-involved in the game we were playing.  They were yelling at the players and screaming at the umpire when I called for time out.
I walked over to the bleachers and said this: “Hey folks, it’s just baseball.”
Because, in truth, that’s all it is.
A game.  A kid’s game to be played and loved and remembered for all the fun it was.
The kids I’ve been watching are playing without the benefit of coaches or equipment or even much in the way of rules, except those that seem to get made up on the spot.  They strike out, miss fly balls, let grounders roll between their legs and argue each and every call.  The other day, in fact, things got pretty heated over a close play at first. For a minute, I thought that maybe I should amble over and help them out a little. Heck, I’ve got an old catcher’s mitt and mask in our basement I could let them borrow. And maybe they could even use an umpire (he was safe, by the way.)
But then I thought better of it,  I thought about kids with bleary eyes and carpal tunnel syndrome from too much TV and too many video games. I thought about living in a time and place where everybody but me seems to have an iPod, and nine-year-olds with their own cell phones put their friends on hold to take another call. I thought about
kids who think they’re playing a game because they play it on Wii, and about kids who only play a game outdoors if their parents organize it, schedule it, deliver them to it and supervise every last moment of it.
Then I sat back down to watch the game across the park.  A loud, disorganized game, played just for fun.
They looked like they were having the time of their lives.
They looked like they were doing just fine without me.
Play ball!

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