We were the last of the sandlot heroes.
The advent of video games, fear of the sun and child abductions have driven kids indoors, unless it is in an organized situation like Little League or "play dates". Its not that parents of my generation didn't care about our well being, its just that the world was a safer place and that being a kid was being a kid. We weren't bombarded by adult messages and themes as kids are today, so left with hours at our disposal without direct adult supervision we did kids things. The kid thing I did the most was sports, particularly baseball. We played all sports. Football in the fall and winter. Basketball when the gym was open, at the "Y" or on the blacktop. Street hockey whenever the inspiration struck. But baseball was my true love. We would play as soon as a green or brown patch shone through the snow in March until the snow covered the ground somewhere around Christmas.
Playing baseball as much as we did we learned the game by playing it. We weren't instructed how to make a "crow hop" in order to throw the ball a little harder from the outfield we just did it automatically by trial and error and watching the older boys technique. Playing on uneven, disheveled lots honed our hand eye coordination, so fielding on a mowed, raked manicured infield became as thoughtless as breathing. Putting together and umpiring our own games gave us a sense of responsibility and organization that you could never glean from joining a team and having the adults do everything for you except hold the bat and throw the ball. For us baseball wasn't just a game, it was a lifestyle.
My backyard baseball experience did not prepared me for my first Little League game, which was nothing short of a debacle. We were all excited for our first "real" game. Back in the old days Little League teams in Boston were comprised of kids from the same neighborhood, so all the kids I played with everyday were on my team, The Blue Hills Community Church Giants. The coaches had an uphill battle, because we had all been playing together for much of our nine years, so coming in and trying to tell us who would play where and how to do it was met with youthful skepticism. We knew that even though Ricky was fast as hell, he couldn't hit, so batting him lead off just because he was fast was a waste. Bobby was afraid of ground balls, but his dad was the coach, so he was getting alot of work at second base when right field was more his position. In practice I was at short stop which was appropriate because I had a great arm which had been developed by throwing snowballs at cars, rocks at trains; I pretty much threw anything I could find at anything that moved. The day of my first game I showed up to the field thinking I was playing short.
When we got to Kelley Field in Readville my whole family was there. Aunts, Uncles, cousins, my grandmother. I was excited to show off my abilities and never was one to shy away from the spotlight (as evidenced by my many goof filled scenes filling our home movies). Coach Burke called to me as I sauntered over to the diamond. "Sully, lets talk". as he was holding a catchers mitt. "I want you to pitch tonight, OK?". "Ahh...Yea...OK coach", I agreed. I felt like throwing up. Mike who was the only kid who practiced pitching and was assumed to be the pitcher was taking balls at short, my assumed position. I had never thrown off a mound or ever pitched to a real catchers mitt. We all took turns pitching in our backyard games, but this was upping the ante. I warmed up with the coach behind the backstop and felt good. I had a good arm, so after a few pitches I was zipping them in there and felt like it was no different than the backyard.
We were up first and I was batting second, so concentrating on my hitting took the edge off for the moment. We went down 1,2,3 swinging at everything offered. I took the mound and thrwe to my catcher in warm ups. I was throwing everything high. Coach Burke came out and gave me a pep talk. "OK, Sull, keep the ball down. Hit the mitt. You'll be fine." My hands started to shake. Everyone was looking at me. For the first time in my life I didn't want to be the center of attention. When the ump pointed toward the mound indicating that I should pitch I took a deep breath. I reared back and fired a ball down the middle of the plate. "Striiike" yelled the ump. The batter never took the bat off his shoulder. I relaxed a bit and took another deep breath. I fired another ball in there, high. The next three pitches were in the dirt. The batter never took the bat off his shoulder. He went to first, proudly. The next batter did the same and so did I. Coach came out. "Just throw strikes. Let 'em hit it."
Two on, no outs. Throw strikes. "Ball one", said the ump, more emphatically than necessary. The next seven pitches were balls. I had walked in a run without getting an out. Everyone was urging me on. The next batter swung at the first pitch and missed. I hit him with the next pitch. Another run in. I pitched two strikes to the next batter then a wild pitch which plated the third run. With that the coach came out and motioned to Mike at short to come to the mound. "Sull, go to short." As Mike took his warm ups I stood at short in a daze. It was as if I never pitched. It was if I had walked straight from my car out to short and none of the last half an hour had happened. Why did he pitch me? Mike threw strike three to the batter. The next batter hit a ground ball to first and Tommy stepped on the bag for the second out. The next batter hit a ball up the middle. I ranged to my left, picked up the ball to the right of the second base bag and threw a strlke to Tommy at first. My family cheered wildy and I had a huge smile on as I ran to the dugout.
We didn't score a run all game.
After the game my uncles worked with me on pitching. I pitched balls until it was dark and was pitching by the light on the back stoop. I never pitched again that year. Because of my strong arm every coach I've ever had, at every level, has tried me on the bump. Every coach has realized that I can't throw strikes. I think of kids today and could they have handled putting the first seven guys on with out an out without parents getting outraged or the kid breaking down. Today it wouldn't happen. Skin today is too thin and kids don't learn how to handle dissapointment and adversity. I felt bad about my outing on the mound, but soon forgot by the next organized game. Why? Because the next day I was playing with my friends in the backyard with plenty of chances to redeem myself, working on my hitting, fielding balls and striking guys out. We cared about Little League, but we cared more about our daily games. Our backyard games mattered more because they were everyday, all year round. Whether it be in Little League or in the backyard, between March and October each year, baseball was life for me and my friends.
Today my backyard games consist of me and my two boys, Matt 5 and Pete 3. I pitch ball after ball while they hit away. Saturday morning Matt will play his first organized game of T-Ball. The kids hit off a tee and there is no scorekeping. I am coaching the team and it is going to take every ounce of patience in my six foot, 200 lb. frame not to whince when the tykes swing and miss (while the ball is sitting on a tee!). I hope I am not so old school that I wear my distain for the "everybody wins" mantra on my face as I am giving some needed encouragement. I hope not to alienate any parents by giving real, constructive, feedback and instruction. Any personal frustrtations will be all worth it when my boy runs out to his position, pounding his fist in his glove, anticipating a line drive or ground ball. As much as I am anticipating out first organized practice, I can't imagine it compares to our backyard games.