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.

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