Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Of Things Gone By

The Friday night workout crew.
Read these thoughts I had last year as the draft approached and I was preparing for my second son to go out there into the world to see what he could find.

I drive on these nights, these long Friday nights of tending to my son, and let my heart drift out seeking the future, wondering what is actually going to happen to this kid. It is often past 10:00 as we leave the highway and coast down the exit ramp toward Spring Mill Road which is a main thoroughfare through the suburbs back into northwest Philadelphia. All is calm and quiet, somehow, as we re-enter our little world of Chestnut Hill and Mt. Airy. 

I’ve made it a habit of not turning on the radio while we do these trips. The three (or four) of us chat and deliberate. Usually by the time we are on Spring Mill Road gently navigating through stoplights and intersections, channeling along next to split level ranches and schools and parks, we are speaking quietly of the future, pondering Danny’s possibilities, Julya’s year next year with Jesse off somewhere, and Jesse’s chances in the draft. It is like we are observing the cover of a book with a beautiful illustration of a landscape filled with gentle, warm light and open roads and vistas of possibility. 

April 10, 2011
My core feels that everything will be all right for all three of these young people -- for all of Jesse's friends, in fact. I am filled with love for all of them. But I am filled with a sense of dread, too, and a weird kind of frustration. Regardless of the final outcome, the book we have been reading together is coming to an end. When I let myself think about it, I realize that I don’t want this to end in so many ways; I don’t want an outcome. I just want to keep on trying, continuing these drives, and our 90-minute training sessions with The Chucks, the staccato conversations with Danny between pitches, the sweet talks with Julya about how frustrating it is not to know what’s going to happen between her and her young baseball star boy friend. I want to just drive in the darkness and know that that book with its stunning cover is out there, and that my son is next to me, and that my love is still some use to him, and that he will stay innocent and hopeful by my side, and that his frustrations will never be truly painful because there is always tomorrow, and tomorrow will be full of infinite possibility and promise and all the roads to success are still open and still calling. 

If you have a young person playing ball, make sure to go watch them all you can. Be aware, while you sit in the stands, of how much you love them, and understand that these days will come to an end. The more you love them as they play, the more you will remember, and life may still feel sweet and promising whenever you see kids out on a ball field ... or pros even under the lights.

See you out there.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Pickup Game Dilemma

The Sandlot gang, from the movie...
I just stumbled upon a website advocating the return of sandlot (or pickup) baseball. They even offer a numbered set of instructions on how to organize a sandlot game.

You hear the complaint a lot these days: "Kids don't play pickup games anymore. It's a different world. No wonder baseball is losing fans and there aren't as many talented players anymore."

There's no doubt all of this is true. But it really is a different world. Pickup baseball was a game for the 8 - 12 set back in the first six decades of the the 20th century.

All summer long we'd play every morning and afternoon before our organized teams had games in the evening. We were lucky. We had a field in a special private park that all the families in the neighborhood belonged to. Sometimes we'd get on our bikes or even walk to fields in our part of town to face off against other rag tag neighborhood teams. It was all spur of the moment, completely unorganized, and improvisational.

I'm not sure what the connection is between my love of the game and all those hours playing baseball until I was 13. I wonder in fact how much of my desire to play every day was a function of my love of the game and how much is the other way around. I know my three sons love the game more than I ever did and they hardly ever played pickup games as kids -- and all three are better at the game than anyone I ever knew growing up.

Conor Biddle at about 2
Something is lost, no doubt, because kids don't play the game that way anymore. A great deal is lost actually. But I'm not writing this to give a sermon on the benefits of free play. Major League Baseball has just announced a new initiative called "MLB is Always Epic." This program comes as a result of several studies indicating a reduction in participation by youth in the game. According to the National Sporting Goods Association, kids from 7 to 17 playing the game fell in numbers by 24% from 2000 - 2009. Football and ice hockey have increased their numbers dramatically. See the full MLB multi-media site here.

The reasons for this are obvious. More sports are played year round -- especially soccer and basketball. There are fewer baseball fields that kids have easy access to (think suburban sprawl where everything is drivable and not walkable). And the proliferation of media opportunities (from games to movies to FaceBook) certainly absorbs kids in ways impossible to imagine back there in 1968. (As an aside here, I wonder what the relationship between baseball video games and actually wanting to play baseball is).

Sam Biddle as a high school player
At the same time, baseball is a game of skill. It takes years to get good even as a pro. And in many ways it was a game that fathers taught their sons (and daughters, especially beginning the 1970s). My sons played the game in the backyard with me.

One of the greatest moments of my early days as a father was a Saturday afternoon at our neighborhood field with my 11-year-old son, Sam. We'd been playing catch for three or four years, but I'd had to baby the ball and ignore the fact that he struggled to consistently snag the ball with his mitt. That day was the first day I could just uncork and let the ball fly. On the other side of things, it was also the first time Sam understood he could the same thing back to me. We stood in a little section of the field with games going on in both corners just burning the ball at each other; practicing trick pitches; playing with our arm angles; throwing the ball on the run. (The next day my arm was killing me). That Saturday afternoon hour I was drawn back to the days I used to do the same thing with my brother and my father after dinner in our backyard. And, as the father of three, I have been so fortunate to do the same thing for the past 10 years with each boy as he got his baseball wings...and then on into his high school career.

But I don't have many friends who do the same with their kids. They love to go to games, even coach. They might occasionally play a little catch with Joey or Suzy, but for the most part, they just don't seem to find it in themselves to make the experience happen regularly. They depend on coaches, it seems, to teach their kids to play. Many of them are even all too happy to pay teachers at special baseball academies.

Now, I must admit that I didn't play catch with my dad every night every summer for five years. I imagine there were several days in a row for a week or two and then nothing for a year until we played again. But there was something important that happened when we played. I think it was the beginning of that approval thing, the mature version of it. There was a very interesting connection that seems like it was being transferred through the baseball going back and forth between us. I wanted to get better at the game to play with my friends, but I also knew in watching my dad how good you could get if you just kept maturing. And my dad had learned to play the game from his dad -- in sandlots and backyards, too, I'm sure.

My dad's job there was to start something up. He didn't need to finish it. There is, of course, no finishing up of baseball. I am sure I'm still playing with him in my dreams every night. I know my sons will play with me in their hearts when they are older and I am too. But I wonder about other kids. Some of my sons' friends have received the same inculcation (if I can use that term) from their dads for basketball or tennis or squash. But I wonder if it's the same thing. It all begins just with playing catch. Play catch with your dad at the right time in your life and the world opens up forever.

Check out a Wall Street Journal article on the supposed decline of interest in baseball here.

See you on the field! Bring the lumber and your mitt and a ball if you got one.