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Leif Zurmuhlen

A Non-League of Our Own
Remembering summer days of sandlot sports
By Stephen Leon

One fine summer day, many years ago. A baseball game had been scheduled for 1 PM (approximately). I knew this not because had I checked my printed schedule (I had no printed schedule), or because I had checked a Web site (there was no Web), or because my mother had gotten a phone call from the coach (we had no coach).

I also knew where the game would be played, not because anyone had told me, or because it had been officially scheduled for any particular field.

I knew where the game would be played because we almost always played at the same place. If the field had been changed for some reason, someone would have told me.

I knew a game had been scheduled for approximately 1 PM because, at approximately 11 AM, Jerry rode his Schwinn past my house, saw me shooting baskets in my driveway, stopped for a moment and said, “Hey, Steve, there’s gonna be a game after lunch. Wanna play?”

“Sure,” I said.

“Can you go tell Brian and Bucky? I’ll go get as many Bradleys as I can. We already got Keith, Chris, Dickie, the Godfreys, my little brother, and a couple other kids from the next street over.”

And so it went. A phone call, a shout from the next yard, a plan laid out the evening before. A neighborhood kid on a bike at your back door, fielder’s glove slipped over the handlebar, bat wedged across the front of the bike, above the handlebar on one side, below it on the other. My father or mother appearing at the back door to scold my friend for riding on the lawn.

Oh, the simple joys of being 10 or 11, old enough to leave the house on your own, too young to be chained to a summer job, not yet distracted by pesky hormones. Our lazy summer days drifted by like so many cumulus clouds, the long hours filled in with bike rides, yard games, trips to nearby lakes, and countless pick-up baseball and soccer games.

Our baseball and soccer fields were at the neighborhood elementary school, and they were kept in good condition by the city, as various league games were played there during the evenings. But we pretty much had the run of the place by day in the summer, when school was out and most everybody was somewhere else, escaping the midday heat in homes or offices or swimming pools. Sometimes, if there weren’t enough kids for a game, a few of us would go to the schoolground (or “skoo-ground,” as my friend Bucky used to say) and pitch batting practice to each other or drill soccer balls against the kickboard until the bleat of the GE whistle reminded us it was time for lunch.

To be sure, some of us played organized sports: Little League baseball, which selected players at tryouts, and Minor League baseball and Summer Soccer, which were open to everybody. But even though these involved regularly scheduled practices and games, they didn’t seem all-encompassing, the way youth sports often do today. A typical kid might have had commitments an evening or two a week, and that was it, leaving vast amounts of free time for unstructured play. And unlike the frenzied multisport life of today’s typical suburban family, kids then seemed content to pick and choose: I, for one, stopped playing organized baseball when I started playing organized soccer. And I never heard the words “traveling team” until I was well into adulthood.

Was it a different world then? Has the sandlot pick-up game gone the way of Ebbets Field? Whatever this means, I did an Internet search for “sandlot baseball,” hoping to find a well-researched article on the subject and thereby answer my question. But mostly I found Web sites for organizations with the words “sandlot baseball” in their titles, though their functions had nothing whatsoever to do with kids gathering in parks or schoolyards to play games without schedules and uniforms and umpires and coaches and screaming parents. And without having to pay anything. A year ago, when I was interviewing a suburban couple about their own admittedly harried lives as sports parents, the father reflected on the sandlot games of his youth, and remarked that he never sees pick-up games being played at the park across the street from his house.

Last summer, my then-4-year-old son, a confirmed sports nut, discovered the baseball field behind his mother’s old high school. Now that he’s a big kid of 5, he’s already playing in organized soccer and T-ball leagues. But every time we drive by the high school—for that matter, every time we announce that we’re going to be in the area—he insists we stop at the school and play some ball at the field.

As he and his brother hit balls and run gleefully around the bases while Mom and Dad try to tag them out, I wonder, why does he like this so much, playing an unstructured, modified version of baseball on this big empty field on a hot summer’s day? Maybe it’s the nostalgia in me, but I like to think he can almost see and hear the other neighborhood kids arriving on their bikes, gloves and bats slung over the handlebars, popping wheelies and doing peel-outs at home plate before casting their bikes aside and getting ready to choose up sides.



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