I believe in sandlot baseball.
When I was growing up, my brothers and I hustled games among the kids of our neighborhood. The more people we had, the more fun, so we often played with children of different ethnic and religious backgrounds. The players’ ages might have spanned seven years, and games were always coed. The social barriers more prevalent at school seemed to evaporate into the summer air.
To make the game work, we often improvised. We closed right field, pitched to our own team, or allowed the little kids a few more strikes. We refereed ourselves, and no one sat the bench. Most importantly, we learned to be generous, because you couldn’t take a chance that someone would pick up their glove and go home. Those games were democracy at its best–a summer incarnation of the Golden Rule.
Today, that sandlot world faces many obstacles, but one of the most ironic is that of organized sports. The National Institute on Sports Reform estimates over 20 million American kids participate now, but interest declines in high school. Children commonly say they quit when “sports aren’t fun anymore.” I see their point, if winning is emphasized over social growth and mental health.
I’m saddened when I hear the word “epidemic” used to describe the verbal abuse kids endure from fans at their games. The word “commonplace” to describe the way parents harass coaches and refs. And the word “escalating” to describe the number of assaults committed on playing fields throughout the U.S.
In contrast, our sandlot games never involved adults. We assessed our own technique and settled our own disputes. “Do-overs” were common. Keeping score was optional. The only scolding we ever got was when we were late for supper.
I signed up to play organized softball when I was thirteen, because by then I knew the game was fun. I went on to earn a varsity letter at my high school. I had great coaches who encouraged fitness, integrity, and sportsmanship. They helped me keep competition in perspective. Luckily, so did my parents.
I believe we owe our children the same autonomy. It does my heart good to see kids organize their own games. The sandlot, as rare as it’s become, fosters the innovation and teamwork this world so desperately needs. Things don’t always go smoothly out there. But kids left alone to play can learn to work things out.
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