Another fine spring evening at the ball field watching 20 Prospect Jr. and his new team mates practice. The boys are having their first scrimmage tonight, which is proving interesting. They’re third graders this year and in the Minor League, which is the first year of kid pitch in Fridley. Last year they got to hit off of a pitching machine, which always puts the ball in the strike zone. It will be interesting to see how the kids handle standing in the batter’s box after they get plunked for the first time. Right now they just kind of watch passively as the ball bounces five feet in front of the plate, or sails over their head. I wonder how long it takes before they figure out how to hit the deck.
I started playing Little League, and Pop Warner football in the 2nd grade. In Batavia, unless they did really well at tryouts, 2nd and 3rd graders played in the minor league over at MacArthur Park. Most likely they still do. William Morgan would have been mortified to know that I played for the Masonic Lodge Stars. Yes, we were indoctrinated into their dark, nefarious rites at an early age. You’d think being a good Catholic boy they’d have put me on a team sponsored by the Jesuits or Opus Dei. Perhaps the Nuns pulled some strings to have me planted among the masons as a double agent. In any case, I was issued my red t-shirt, and red wool cap with a white S on the front. That some Wrangler Jeans, a pair of Keds, and a Wilson Paul Blair model glove were all I needed. No spikes, baseball pants, stirrups, or batting gloves were required to play little league. No parent took their kids to a hitting coach at an indoor batting cage to prepare them for the season. It was a simpler time.
I would ride my Huffy Thunder Road the four blocks to practice with my glove hanging on the handlebars, and a bat over my shoulder. Our practices were over in Austin Park, right behind the post office & city hall. Back in 77-78 they did not have a backstop or a ball field at Austin Park, just some dirt spots worn into the grass where the bases and pitcher’s mound were. We improvised a backstop for practice by parking our bikes in a semicircle behind home plate, so that wayward pitches would hit a few spokes before they rolled out into the street. And Lord, were there wayward pitches. Thinking back to my two years playing for the dastardly Masons, about all I remember was getting beaned by pitches. I think I got to first more times that way than by hitting the ball. In one memorable practice, my coach even beaned me in the helmet twice. Perhaps he knew I was Catholic.
Games were even less fun than practice. Back then they kept score, and there were actually winners and losers. No trophies for being a participant. Positions were determined by the coach, so if you stunk, you played outfield. No exceptions. I spent my first year picking dandelions in right field. By year 2 I had moved to shortstop, so I must have showed some signs of improvement. Still, I split time at shortstop with another kid, so half of the game I was on the bench. In 3 innings of baseball, I could realistically count on 1-2 at bats, which was fine by me. Any more shots to the head and I would have had permanent brain damage.
I only played baseball for two years, before I gave it up. Mom gave me a hard time about it, wondering what I was going to do with myself all summer, but I don’t recall ever having a problem finding something to do. Besides, compared to wiffle ball in the backyard, organized baseball was a bore. By 6th grade Batavia got its first youth soccer league, the Genesee Amateur Soccer Association. So I came out of retirement to play co-ed soccer with all the other uncoordinated kids, and a star was born. Well, a Falleti Motors “Striker” anyway. I led the team in scoring my first year, and made the all star team. We got to go play a tournament game inside of the Aud in Buffalo, but that is a story for another time.
It’s funny, but I don’t ever recall my parents driving me to baseball or soccer practices, or hanging around to watch us practice. No, we were left alone with whatever shady adult had volunteered to coach youth sports. Baseball wasn’t a problem as it was usually someone’s Dad. Soccer on the other hand was coached by the hippy subversive types that you’d expect to coach a sissy sport like soccer in the late 70’s. Long haired, dope smokers for the most part, which put them right in the median for Batavia youth at the time.
Times were different then. Even at the age of 10 we were given a lot of freedom, that I would never consider giving to Lil’ Miss 20 Prospect or 20 P. Jr. Back then, all kids were free range kids. Oddly enough, despite the hippy freaks that abounded, spray painting LOVE and what not in the center of Oak Street, we all seemed to survive. I think Lenore is on to something. Although as I say that, I am watching 20 P. Jr. taking his hacks at the ball, waiting for practice to end so I can drive him home.
As a parent in a big city, I’m really torn. I don’t want my kids to grow up completely sheltered and be unable to cope when they finally get too old to keep locked in the basement. I want them to know the innocence, and freedom of being able to run around the neighborhood without a care. And yet, it’s a big city. Two folks were shot a block away from where we sat having a donut on Saturday morning. So I would be irresponsible if I were to let them run like I ran when I was there age. There’s a big difference between an inner ring suburb in a metro area of 3 million people, and a po-dunk town of 15,000 people. I am glad to have been blessed to grow up in the time and place that I did. I don’t take one second of it for granted. I hope someday my kids can say the same.