Most of us remember our first love; for me it was baseball. Like a lot of boys, I got my love for the game from my father--a military man who after hours played baseball, softball, or anything with a bat and ball, even cricket. When he wasn't doing those things, he was out back with me, catching for me as I developed a sound pitching arm, or at my Little League games with me where I put that arm to good use. When my father wasn't around I'd use a portable netted backstop, the springy-type with a strike zone on it, the kind where the ball hits the netting and comes right back to you. I don't see a lot of those netted backstops these days, sadly, but that netted backstop really helped my accuracy and allowed me to practice pitching on my own, without a catcher.
Another thing that seems to be missing from the American landscape is boys playing pickup games or simply outside playing catch with each other. When I was growing up, in the 60s, 70s, and early 80s, boys would get excited about the coming Little League season. Father's and
sons would be outside long before "Opening Day," playing catch and just bonding with one another. Boys would gather together and play pickup games in a nearby field or park, or toss pop flies to each other, laughing and just having fun with each other outdoors. But that too seems to be gone, which saddens me.
Baseball is a wonderful game that teaches teamwork, agility, hand-eye coordination, respect for authority, sportsmanship--how to win and lose gracefully--and self-discipline. It's not an individual sport; it's a team sport and as such it teaches accountability to one another, which can carry into other areas of life. And baseball is supposed to teach honesty--personal integrity. Baseball used to be THE game to be played by American boys, but that seems to be diminishing. A lot of boys making it to the majors these days come from overseas, not through our Little League program. Extreme individual sports seem to be the first choice of American boys these days, soccer and basketball even beating out Little League. Why? What happened? I loved Little League as a boy!
(Norman Rockwell's artwork captures my thoughts on childhood baseball, especially this piece, "Choosin' up." Used under "Fair Use.")
What's not to like about playing a fun game with other boys, on a grassy field under the warm sun, the crack of the ball hitting the bat, players shuffling about to make amazing plays, the sound of the umpire calling balls and strikes, the smell of grilled hot dogs, pepper bellies, and roasted peanuts filling the air, other kids in and around the stands shagging foul balls and home run balls, returning them to the snack bar in exchange for tasty treats, parents and brothers and sisters and grandparents sitting on the bleachers cheering you on? And after the game you get to sit in the stands and eat those hotdogs and pepper bellies, washing them down with ice cold soda while you watch the next set of boys experience all that you just experienced. Does it get any better than that?
For me, growing up in the 60s, 70s, and early 80s, baseball was a year-round endeavor. If I wasn't playing I was practicing. If I wasn't doing either of those things I was thinking about the game or dreaming about becoming a big league pitcher. Sure I did other things, like ride my bike, but thoughts of baseball never left my mind--not until our family broke up, like so many children have to endure these days. Only then did my dream of being a professional ball player die, life getting in the way. But I still loved playing the game, and I wish more American boys would discover or rediscover "America's pastime." It has so much to offer boys, so much to teach them about becoming responsible men--especially in a world that's increasingly hostile toward men and their role in society.
So come on boys...let's play ball!