In the soundtrack for the movie A League of Their Own, Madonna sings, “This Used to be My Playground. This used to be my childhood dream.” This lyric popped into my head a few Saturdays past when my wife and I walked much of the new Sandusky Bay Pathway on Sandusky’s west end. We marveled with pride at the progress that has been made and at the access to bay front scenery it provides. In fact, we were thrilled for much of the journey – until we arrived at the section that runs behind what used to be my ballfield, my field of dreams: Amvets Park.
I say “my,” but those parks, the joy they inspired and the dreams they engendered belonged to many boys in Sandusky, and I say “boy” with apologies to the few brave girls who challenged unequal gender assignments long before it was cool to do so. I’m looking at you Julie Cairelli. I honestly believe that my interest in feminist causes began with you even if I couldn’t put words to it at the time.
So many great ball players slid into those bases and toed the rubber at Amvets Park – most gloriously under the lights installed in the early seventies that made small town kids feel like big leaguers. From my era, I remember guys like Brad Gilchrist, Mark Pfanner, Paul Moore, Tracy Steele, Dana Newell, Shaun Powell, and Alvin Lee. All were sandlot legends before they’d even reached their teens.
As much as I think of these Bennie “The Rocket”-like teammates and opponents from my own little league years, talented players like them will almost always be found and room be made for them on some eager-to-win manager’s roster. It’s the average to below-average players I worry about, the ones who played hard just to be a serviceable player but were able to reap many of the same valuable life lessons from participation in the sport as the stars of their teams. I worry about the ones who played their two innings while picking dandelions in right field and got their turn at bat but who also, in their own free-spirited way, showed us sports and winning-obsessed kids that there was another, less intense, more chill way of seeing and being in the world. How many times did the loudest roar from the fans erupt not when the star roped another line drive off of the fence but when Two-inning Tommy actually put the bat on the ball, trickled one down the line, and somehow managed to beat the throw to first base – on which he proudly stood as if it were his own Mount Everest – and he smiled as if he were The Mighty Casey on a better day?
And, I think of all of the adults who gave so much of their time and energy to umpire, to run the concession stand, and most importantly, to coach. They all provided a living example of serving the children of one’s community: Ken Steffenhagen, Diane Marcus, Butch Wagner, Tom Link, Mark Fogg, and the others too many to list. Merely typing those names, I shrink in shame at my own lack of volunteerism.
Prior to this most recent visit, I had not been to Amvets Park since I watched my youngest brother play there nearly thirty-five years ago. He was the last of six of us brothers to participate in the Sandusky Amvets Little League. The dilapidated condition of the ballfields broke my heart, but it serves as the perfect metaphor for the state of community-based youth sports in America today.
As a white kid growing up in the largely-segregated Sandusky of the sixties and seventies and attending Catholic school, sadly, the city’s baseball programs from Eagles Atom League through the Babe Ruth League provided me my only opportunity to meet and play with African-American children. And, although it was a burden for my mother to provide the transportation, practicing at the various ball fields around town (Farwell Park; Cliff Schirg Park; Elm Street Park, Sprau Park, the sandlots at Mills, Ontario, and Campbell School, even Central Park and that tiny sandlot by Union Chain/Tsubaki) allowed me to see and be in parts of the city I never would have visited had it not been for Little League baseball. Like most of those fields, our commitment to children other than our own has gone to seed, and conscious outreach to those in neighborhoods unlike the ones in which we live has all but disappeared. We have managed to gerrymander our lives in a manner that must even impress legislators in the Ohio State House.
I know, as Billy Joel correctly sings, that “The good old days weren’t always good,” but there is something very wrong when the only way a child can compete in a highly-competitive athletic environment these days is if he/she can afford to pay exorbitant membership fees to a travel team and to pay for food and housing while playing in out-of-town tournaments nearly every spring, summer, and fall weekend. This is before including the cost of personal bats, helmets, a glove, and all of the accoutrements deemed necessary by the modern ball player. All of which can easily add up to well north of five hundred dollars. Like too many things in American society, organized baseball at the youth level is becoming a luxury a poor kid’s family cannot afford.
It leads me to wonder how many Sandusky kids who may have the aptitude to be outstanding ball players never gain the ability to do so for the simple lack of opportunity. Much worse, it makes me wonder how the lack of community-based athletic leagues denies those same children the opportunity to interact with others from different neighborhoods, races, socioeconomic strata, etc. and how this exacerbates the construction of the invisible but all-too-real walls that seem to increasingly divide us as a people of a community. Worst of all, I wonder, without youth sports, how many kids will never experience the thrills so poignantly experienced and never learn the life lessons so effectively taught through participation in sports or feel the pride found in wearing a uniform and belonging to something larger than oneself: a team.
My favorite baseball movie of all time is The Natural, based on the novel of the same name by the great Bernard Malamud. I quote from it often. Late in the film when a poor choice from Roy Hobbs’ catches up to him, he wisely states, “[S]ome mistakes you never stop paying for.” I shudder to think of the price communities are already beginning to pay for making the mistake of letting their ball fields and little leagues vanish.
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