Each summer they wait under sunny skies and warm breezes. But no one comes. If you listen carefully, you might hear echoes of childhood voices that now belong to grown men and women. Otherwise, the only sound on them is the hum of lawn mowers trimming the grass.
Summer is officially over. And our ball fields and playgrounds endured another silent vigil abandoned by the kids.
Once parents and coaches pack up the uniforms, equipment and rule books each spring, ball fields are orphaned - at least until the organized youth sports leagues reappear when school resumes. Every summer the children disappear. Some retreat to their cellphones and laptops. Others head to camps, or vacations. A few join the so-called elite “travel teams,” which sadly fuel their parents’ irrational hope of someday avoiding college tuition through an athletic scholarship.
Gone are the days of pickup games best depicted in the classic 1993 baseball movie “The Sandlot,” when children gathered on their own to play games in parks, playgrounds and empty lots. In larger cities, those games were played on streets transformed into fields measured by curbs, manhole covers and street lights. Depending on the season and the neighborhood, the games varied from baseball, football, street hockey, soccer and basketball to other regional games such as stickball or halfball. But the ball fields, the parks and the streets were alive with kids playing games all summer.
Those games had no formal rules, no umpires, no uniforms and no coaches. Best of all, they had no parents.
Two recent newspaper articles depict today’s sad state of affairs on our ball fields. One portrays high school coaches in Syracuse, N.Y., under siege from parents driven to erratic and often irrational behavior trying to ensure their children’s success on the field. Another is the tale of adult men, raised in another era, still playing sandlot football at a playground in New York City.
Sandlot games involved more than kids entertaining themselves. Without realizing it, kids learned about teamwork, leadership, fairness, negotiating and even sometimes a hard does of cruelty.
Team captains were appointed by consensus. The rules varied, depending on who got the last word, the size of the field or how many kids happened to show up. There was no umpire for close plays at bases made from empty boxes or worn turf. The calls simply evened it out later in the game. Ties always went to the runner. It was rough justice, but it worked. And it seemed that almost every kid endured the indignity of being the last one picked, or being ridiculed based on his performance or something stupid like the color of his socks or his name.
When we tired of playing each other, we challenged some other neighborhood kids to beat us. The game went on without uniforms or parents setting the schedule. And just like in “The Sandlot,” the game invariably ended when we lost the ball, broke the bat or, worse yet, a window.
Those summer fields are now dead. And they have been dead for decades. Sociologists can better explain the reasons, but it seems the fields lost their life when we moved from simply letting our children play games to managing their lives, especially in organized youth sports.
After sharing the Syracuse article with a friend who once served as a high school sports coach in suburban Philadelphia, he shouted, “Amen; they got it right.” He loved the kids he coached but, he said, some parents were too much: constantly interfering, harassing, fighting, lobbying and sometimes threatening. And guess who suffered? The kids of the misguided parents whose mission seems to be ensuring that their children never fail and are never rejected.
Meanwhile, in New York City, a bunch of overweight and aging former sandlotters thrive on Sunday mornings playing rough touch football. My neighbor, age 63, plays in a similar football game in suburban Philadelphia. Sadly, there are no kids fighting the old guys for space on the field.
Each September, a bunch of retired guys become little kids again, spending Sunday mornings devising trick plays to fool the opposition, and diving to make plays that the best players in the NFL would be challenged to make. When the snow gets too deep, or the weather too cold, they retreat to their recliners until next season.
Those aging sandlotters still make their own rules, pick their own teams and settle their own disputes. And then - unlike 40 or 50 years ago when they would have stolen a drink from a neighbor’s garden hose - they might share a few beers after the game.
Meanwhile, the kids have abandoned our ball fields. Let’s hope they return next summer. The old guys can’t bring life to the empty fields forever. And kids still have a lot to learn on their own that no parent or coach can teach.
Timothy R. Rice is a writer in Havertown, Pa.