Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Youse Guys Wanna Go Play Stickball?

Not as much sandlot baseball is being played these days:

Sandlot baseball, a slice of American life enjoyed for decades by boys from coast to coast, appears on the verge of extinction.

Many men over 40 remember those summer days when they headed to the park or vacant lot and played ball all day - or until Mom sent word that it was time for dinner.

Nowadays, most neighborhood ball fields sit empty on summer afternoons, the idea of unsupervised play having gone the way of the rotary-dial phones kids once used to round up the fellas for a game. The reasons for the sandlot's demise, baseball coaches and sociologists say, go back to the changing family structure, video games, parents' fear of crime, and the proliferation of organized and so-called "select" teams for more-talented kids.
One of the rules I live by is to be skeptical of any article that features the word "nowadays," as it is almost always a signal that there is some seriously sentimental bullshit ahead.

And there is some of that here. The cliché holding that there once was a time not too long ago when every kid played ball from sunup to sundown is pretty overplayed. Yeah, I suppose it happened, but in my experience (and my father's and even his father's) it wasn't quite so intense. Sure, pickup ballgames were played, but forts were built too. Water balloons were thrown. Piano lessons were endured. Kids went to the movies when it was hot and bummed around aimlessly just as much as kids today do, albeit in different ways. I'd be shocked if even your average baseball freak played more than a partial game most summer afternoons, simply because most kids don't tend to have that kind of attention span. The few who did turned into George Brett or Carlton Fisk or someone like that, and they were playing organized ball themselves even then.

But even if things ain't quite like they used to be (and probably never were), there probably is less sandlot ball being played today. Writers tend to get more articles greenlighted when they chalk such trends up to just how crazy modern life has become -- citing video games and overscheduled kids is a must -- but my guess is that the biggest thing at work here is the fact that people just aren't having as many kids as they used to. At least white middle class people aren't, and they are the only people who ever seem to matter to the authors of stories like these.

Baseball takes a lot of people to play properly. In my old neighborhood you could place a call to the Hogarths, the Freiheits, and the Byrnes, and that would give you like twelve kids. That was strange even for the 70s, but it's pretty much unheard of now. It's just easier to play basketball as you can do it with two people or even by yourself if you have to.

I'm a pretty big proponent of unstructured play, but part of me wonders what would've happened to me if I had the kinds of parents who obsessed about sports and put me in some hyped-up baseball program at a young age as opposed to letting me simply play with the Hogarths, Freiheits, and Byrnes. Maybe my swing wouldn't have sucked as bad as it did. Maybe I would have had better fielding instincts. Then again, maybe I would have topped out physically in exactly the same way I did and ended up as a bitter and disappointed kid as opposed to adopting the "oh well, let's try something new" attitude I took when I realized that a baseball career wasn't to be.

The point is, we can't know, and it's probably a good idea not to dwell too much on the wouldas, shouldas, and used to bes of life. Kids are doing different things today, sure, but their kids will be doing something else too, and on and on through history it will go, with each generation lamenting that the next doesn't spend its time properly.

(link via Pete Toms)


Jason said...

"each generation lamenting that the next doesn't spend its time properly".... like reading, you know, a physical newspaper.

greg p said...

In our neighborhood in the 1960s, it was wiffleball and street hockey. You do both of those with as few as four players and between our house and Smiths next door, we always had six to start.

I agree with Craig on the sheer number of kids available to play being lower.

Another item, is that we now live far out in the countryside in Maine (as opposed to a big city in Maine, haha), so there aren't any neighbors to begin with for my kids.

Ken Dynamo said...

yeah im 27 and never participated or heard about people participating in sandlot baseball. we did play a butt load of other games that involved far less people, organization adn equipment tho. mostly wiffleball, or something using a tennis ball and anything that could be used as a bat.

even if you did get enough people or 9 on 9 or whatever it would instantly devolve into a shouting match over calls and rules etc.

Craig Calcaterra said...

Ken -- sounds like my experience too. Best arguments involved "ghost runners." I think the standard rule is that a ghost runner can only take as many bases as the batter does, but there was always one kid who claimed that his ghost runner was Willie Wilson or something and he just HAD to go first to third.

Before you know it everyone is throwing crab apples at everyone else and someone's crying.

Daniel said...

Ahh nostalgia...it's always better the second time around. I'm 25, and I put myself in the same boat as Ken. I would play with 4 or 5 kids - maybe over-the-line or whiffleball - but it was few and far between when we could get enough kids together for a semi-organized game.

I don't recall my dad ever talk about doing anything like this either, but maybe that's because he played Little League like I did. I'd love to see kids playing more baseball, but it's just too hard to get an impromptu game together.

Justin Zeth said...

I don't think it's just not enough kids. Most of the time when I see enough kids gathered together on a field to get a reasonable game of something resembling baseball going (10, but preferably 12), they're playing football.

Tim Kelly said...

"Unsupervised play" is becoming a thing of the past. I don't get the sense that kids can just walk out of the house to go "play" anymore.

Dimitrios said...

Well, I played at the local baseball field as a kid with my friends. I even remember a lot of us getting yelled at by our Baseball coach, because we played in a neighborhood game the day of a Little Leage Championship game.

Now, I played outside pretty darn near most days with my friends and it usually revolved around some sort of baseball activity.

But, most games that involved a ball and a bat were not baseball games, but homerun derby games. I always thought that if you could get a 2v2 game going, just go to the park and play baseball derby instead of wiffle ball.

I do have to admit that it was pretty hard to find enough folks for a baseball game. I guess I was lucky in that there was a baseball field and park across the street from the house I grew up in. So, it wouldn't take too much effort to go to people's houses and see if so and so wanted to play a game. This rounding up usually depended on if we actually felt like playing a game or just spend the day playing homerun derby.

DXMachina said...

I played a lot of shorthanded baseball when I was a kid in the suburbs in the early sixties. Sometimes it was a short as 2 on 2. Right field was foul territory, throwing to the pitcher on the rubber was the same as throwing to first on a grounder, and we used invisible men to run the bases.

One thing that always bugged me was that the little league season, which was really the only time I got to play in a full 9 on 9 game, was pretty much over by the end of June. It was only when I got older that I realized that the main reason for this was so that a handful of kids could go on and play in the run up to the Little League World Series while the rest of us pushed invisible men around the bases.

Art Vandeley said...


Thanks for calling out their nostalgia of yesteryear. Baseball that we grew up with is our own personal memory, just as special for each generation.

I rode my bike 2 miles nearly every day to my friends house and we played wiffle ball, tennis ball, and turned on WGN and TBS to watch America's two teams. The Hawk, Ryno, and the lousy Braves and a box of baseball cards for trivia.

Then I dominated the mid-80's lineups of the Cardinals, Mets, and Tigers by throwing 4 nights a week with a tennis ball against the house. Striking out all 27 batters on the 1986 Mets as a 10 year old, now that's a baseball memory.