I was recruited for a baseball game in Connecticut recently, a “plastic bat and ball operation that scales the game down for kids and back yards. It was the kids who wanted to play. But while I was out in centre field, ready to sprint to the “warning track of the neighbors drive way in my flip-flops, I couldnt help noticing kids were doing cartwheels, getting gum off their mitts, examining their shoes with a surgeon’s curiosity, and otherwise entranced by anything but the game at hand.
This pretty much explodes the convention. Normally, sports demands all our attention and then some. The point is to be utterly focused, hyper-naturally alert to what happens next. But these kids were playing the game as something that just happened to be happening while they were otherwise engaged.
Little League, by contrast, looks like a conspiracy, a way of conscripting the young into adulthood. We create a little wedge, marked off by chalk, wire, uniforms, and lots and lots of rules. Then we take 9 year olds and try to get them to pay attention. To test them fully, we devise a game that contains long periods in which nothing much happens. We tempt them with dreaminess. Naturally, the kids oblige by mooning about, especially the outfielders who can frequently be seen facing in the wrong direction, wearing their gloves on their heads.
But we made one small error. We so engineered the bat and the ball that, when combined, they create an auditory cue capable of summoning even the original space cadet. Or maybe this was deliberate. Kids being kids, its possible that without the “crack of the bat every Little League game would end 110-95. Without the crack of the bat, outfields would engage only when the ball actually bounced of their mitts and succeed only when the ball actually fell into it.
Plastic bats and balls make a different sound, a satisfying “whomp that credits the batter with prowess he/she does not have, but this works perfectly to call the kids back. Cartwheels stop, gum is abandoned, shoes are forgotten, someone screams, and the game resumes. For a moment. And then it comes apart again, in a slow dissolve that leaves you thinking, “what a beautiful afternoon. Is that gum on my mitt?
Baseball is where some of us learned to pay attention. But summer baseball is where, ironically, we return to the childhood pre-baseball, to that unfocused, unvigilant, mooning, sublime-seeking reverie the soul cannot do without. We have to “pay attention to get into adulthood, but summers and baseball, these we get to come back to. In about 10 months from now.