The Boys Of Summer

I was born in 1960 and have played baseball since I can remember. There were no formalized leagues in the 1970s for kids younger than 9, but we played pickup games every day. Today those games seem a thing of the past. I hate to sound like an old man, but the game has sure changed in many ways, as have the lessons and benefits.

As kids, once we finally got on a real team, we looked forward to finding out our team’s name. In spite of their record in the 1970s, we still wanted to be the Cleveland Indians. Running out to take our positions, we would yell, “I’m Greg Nettles” or “I’m Ray Fosse” or “I’m Gaylord Perry.” The Tribe games were heard in static-laden tones from a tiny single speaker in an AM radio ($1.98 at Woolworth’s) that dangled from a strap hung on our bicycle handlebars. We memorized the images from baseball cards and stood like the players, batted like the players, and tried to spit a lot because that was a sign of being cool. Even then, there was a certain prestige if you played for the Yankees or the new-style ‘70s, hipper “A’s” with players like Rawley Fingers and Blue Moon Odom to emulate.

Coaches were different then also. Most coaches were a bit plump with visible “former athlete” signs: a heavy but hard gut, strong arms, balding head and a farmer’s tan. Most came to afternoon practice in factory-line clothing straight from work. They were not above a little name-calling or a few chiding remarks. “For cryin’ out loud, Seensooty, get under the ball!”

But the players shook those comments off because everybody got the same treatment, and it helped a boy develop thicker skin. Grown-ups were always yelling at kids about something anyway; it was part of the territory. We played hard, swung for the fences, and slid into every base we could–for nothing else but to create dust around us. Baseball had a taste and smell and an aura like nothing else. We just wanted to play.

Not What It Used To Be

When I became a father decades later, I began to coach my son and found the game had changed from several perspectives. In the late 1980s and early 1990s it was no longer OK to name a Little League team after a professional team. After all, there were royalties to be paid for using the team name. Now let me pause here to compliment the wizard attorney or agent that came up with this one. Let’s try to get professional baseball team names NOT to be repeated as often as possible and to be sure that kids don’t imitate their heroes because we may lose the enormous windfall from the Rotary Club that buys the jerseys and puts the names on them.

Talk about “give me a break.” As a result, the teams in my son’s league were named “The Bulldogs,” “The Tasmanian Devils” and even “The Eagles” (they evidently snuck that one past the Philadelphia football franchise). But it didn’t faze the kids because baseball heroes were already in decline. In my day, a Cleveland Indian usually stayed a Cleveland Indian until he retired. He was a hometown icon–touchable, reachable. Today’s kids know about free agency and follow the player from team to team throughout his career; loyalty is not even a consideration. Most kids can quote a player’s salary and understand what a “signing bonus” is as well as the advantage of product endorsements (thanks, LeBron).

Also, kids today want to be “specialists.” When we played, we tried every position and rotated all summer long, getting experience at everything. Try today to get your shortstop to play the outfield. The look you get can turn water into ice.

This brings up another monstrous difference. I can honestly say that, by the end of every season I have coached recently, I have seen most if not all of my players cry–through frustration, pain, disappointment, embarrassment and more. Yet I recall as a kid there was nothing more emasculating than shedding tears. I took a fast pitch to the ear once that sent my brain rocking, but I dropped the bat and ran to first. Biting my lip and trying to stay on my feet, I could hear people saying, “Did it hit him?”

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