Diamond Lessons A Generation Later

I'M a kid out of the '50s. Saying that, I know, conjures up images of greased hair, outrageous cars, Chuck Berry, and other bedrock emblems of that storied decade. But I was a country kid, and my life wasn't affected a whole lot by the '50s as people remember them today. Except for wearing white socks, I think my adolescence might not have been much different had it been lived in the '40s or even the '30s. Between, say, 11 and 14, what I remember doing with my time was roaming the woods with my dog, som e times with fishing rod in hand, sometimes without. I slopped around in a creek, climbed trees, built houses in them, and mainly used my imagination to launch myself into other times and places. This is what I did when I was alone. When I wanted social contact, at least in season, what I did was play baseball.

Actually, at that age I didn't play baseball as much as softball. Before Raymond Young built his house on the lot next door, that lot was our ball diamond. Not that it was really a diamond, I guess, that word connoting excessive smoothness and symmetry. It was more or less a trapezium, pinched in a bit on the third-base side (where the little hill fell off to the creek), and bellied out on the first-base side. Left field was short because that's where the wild blueberry and sumac grew. Deep right field t

ended to be wet and you could break an ankle on the rough ground. In center field a couple of young aspens stood ready to give an unwary outfielder an argument.

But no ball diamond had better-worn base paths. Every evening from April through August - every evening - after supper, eight or 10 of us emerged from our homes on schedule, like ants on a trail, with a few beat-up leather gloves, an old softball, and a bat. We headed for the ball field. We chose up sides, formally, the captains observing that ancient hand-over-hand bat ritual that today's organization players might find mysterious. Each captain wisely (and of necessity) chose a cross section of age and

sex, today's grouping only slightly distinguishable from yesterday's. Top age here was maybe 15.

Part of the outfield was always dead because we couldn't afford a player there. Frequently one kid pitched for both teams. (May I modestly interject that I had a wicked, spinning pitch that always resulted in a pop-up. My pitching ability was to be woefully underestimated in my adult years.) Each team supplied a catcher from its own ranks when at bat, and heaven help the catcher who didn't try hard enough to tag a teammate sliding into home plate. This human failing was perhaps the most frequent cause o f

rows.

What brings all this to mind is that my children are now playing baseball. Organized baseball. For better and for worse, this kind of baseball differs in several ways from the ball that we played.

I began to notice the differences at registration time (the first difference being that there was a registration). I noticed, for example, that a lot was expected of parents. As soon as I'd signed the papers and paid the required fees, a platoon of dedicated people offered me the chance to participate in a number of voluntary activities associated with the league. They had set up a kind of gantlet, where sign-up sheets were the weapons. Candy-sale committee? Lottery-ticket committee? Concession stand? G r

oundskeeping? Assistant coaching? Umpiring? To my shame, I've always had a problem with volunteer work. At the critical moment of volunteering I'm usually struck by visions of my half-remodeled bathroom; of my lawn threatening to devour my house; of my unfinished garden shed; of my unbegun writing career. I smiled "No, thank you," to each in turn.

By the time I reached the publicity committee sign-up person I was weakening. I could write an article or two for the Penny Saver, I supposed. But publicity turned out to be inextricably and inexplicably linked with player statistics, and I balked. Player statistics is not my number. I said no again, accepted the proffered packet of informational materials, and slunk out to grout my bathroom tile.

Later that evening I read through the informational handout, much of which had been attractively done on the league's computer. My son Ian, who had never played baseball before, was to take part in "major league" tryouts. Imagine! (Cristina, one year younger, must still be in the minors, I reasoned.) There would be an opening day, an event doubtless to be attended by many parents and graced by a local dignitary who would throw out the first ball or lead the pledge of allegiance. There would be a picture

day. Eventually, I noted, that day would come when my children would don their uniforms, adorned with stitching proclaiming Don's Heating and Air Conditioning, the Derby Body Shop, or McDonald's, and play their first game.

Seven-hundred kids in my town had said to their parents, "Mom, Dad, I'd like to play baseball this summer," and the preparations were taking on the aspect of a Himalayan crossing. Somehow, I thought, the notion had been lost that all you needed to play baseball was a bunch of kids and an open field. Now you also needed administrators, coaches, photographers, computers, major-league tryouts, a budget, and parents.

I've gone to some practices and games, and I like what I see. Ian's coaches are really good, especially when they drill the infield: "Get down there, now. Crouch! You, Ian, be ready! Everybody be ready! Where's the play? Where you gonna throw it? Think. Think!" It's made me more of a believer. If I'd had such coaching at the age of 10, my life might have turned out better. I might have at least become a good ball player. There is something to organized baseball that you just don't get when you're playin g

for fun.

We had organized ball, even in the '50s, and I eventually got into it. The coaching was more laissez-faire than it is today, but we had nine-man teams and a mowed outfield. I don't remember ever registering, and certainly never paid a fee. I only showed up at practice enough times that they gave me a jersey and let me sub at first base and right field. I had very caring parents, but following a second-string ball player around to country diamonds a couple of evenings a week was not high on their list of

perceived duties. They had grass to cut, and a bathroom to remodel, and sometimes they just needed a breather from - well - from me. Manning the concession stand (if we'd had one) would have been incomprehensible to them. The players themselves took turns keeping the scorebook, there wasn't much publicity, and if you wanted statistics, statistics you could have. You could do them yourself.

I guess it's not the old brand of baseball that I care about. Today's kids are really learning the game. What I do care about is kids - specifically suburban kids - being able to amuse themselves without a legion of parents, a fleet of cars, a planning calendar, and equipment for any occasion. In fairness to these children, though, how are they to amuse themselves? For most of them, there are no woods to roam in. Most kids have no creeks to wade in, or trees to dream in. There is no vacant lot next door

where they can get up a ball game. And even if there were a vacant lot, or a creek, or a good climbing tree, which of them would have the time to play or roam or dream? Their mothers are sitting in the driveway, waiting to take them to karate, tennis, or swimming lessons.

Some of them, I'm sure, are late for baseball practice.

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