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.
Why thank you kind sir for reminding me that not everything is calenders and time management. That there are moments of bliss to be captured, when the suits are looking the other way.
Marshall, thanks for your thanks! Grant
I hate to be a stickler…but…only catchers wear a “mitt”, all other fielders wear a “glove.”
Otherwise, nice piece!
I defer to your expertise in these matters, and I am always grateful for the ethnographic particulars, but I am obliged to say that growing up in Canada, Little League, and Babe Ruth (not necessarily in that order of fealty), I always called my glove a mitt. It may be a Canadian thing, but there it is. Thanks, Grant
Another of those American-Canadian distinctions that seem to be bringing so much heat these days!
Tom, exactly, and the debate seems quite heated enough with mixing in doctrinal issues. But you know, now I am worried. I used to play catcher, so of course I called my mitt a mitt. But I could swear it was also a term I used for my glove, the thing I wore, as an outfielder, on my head, while staring in the wrong direction. Hmmm. Nice spot. Thanks, Grant
Grant, I was a LL catcher. When we played pond hockey – a much more ephemeral recreation when attempted on an island warmed by the Gulf Stream, then on a frozen slough north of 49 – I naturally gravitated toward goal. Hows by you? I had a classmate in grammar school who played in a neighboring league, who also caught. When the most skateable part of our local lake froze, the two of us would show up with goal sticks.
The great Tretiak called it “the noble position.”
My Dad, a high school baseball coach, warned us off playing “whiffle ball.” It screws up your reflexes, as the ball’s speed and weight are so different from that of a hardball, as is the sound. Softball does this, too. You can mess up the rhythm of your swing, and find youself slumping on the “real” diamond.
Kevin, I was busy playing football when, as a good Canadian, I should have been tending a net. And, yes, whiffle ball is bad for your reflexes in the same way that badminton is bad for your tennis game. But then I am beginning to think that that call from the Detroit Tigers is never going to come, so I am just going to take the risk. Thanks, Grant
And I was tending net in roller-hockey in The Bronx, with pillows as pads and a genuine Jacques Plante facsilimile mask, while doing my best Gump Worsley impression!
me, I never played baseball…I don’t think any of my boy cousins did either. Oh, but kick the can in the gloaming…or freeze tag…oh and the dirt clod wars in the spring, with lovely forts and tunnels in the giant mustard fields, due to be disked up when the dirt had dried enough.
No parents in sight anywhere, no rules except the rules we decreed. You see, I don’t think it’s the uniforms and the regimentation of pre-teen sport that sucks the life out, it is the rules being imposed and frozen. So the negotiations and the special invocations (such as when you had to include the little kids or lose the dessert promised later) and how the game was handicapped on the fly.
Liz, wasn’t kick the can grand? And real kid culture, passed down generation after generation, uncodified, unsupervised, completely engaging, and dynamic, with advantage shifting continually to the “kickers” as darkness fell. Thanks, Grant
See, I was an urban kid. No kick the can, and only organized baseball. What we had was dodgeball/elimination (elimination was the every man for himself version where you got to take only a few steps with the ball before you had to throw it). There was also some handball.
Kids in other neighborhoods played alot more hoops, stickball, and roller hockey, but not me.
Dodgeball! I remember thinking, “this is a game? Hunting humans for sport?” Paintball seems to be roughly the same sort of thing, but it doesn’t hurt so much. Thanks, Grant
Dodgeball didn’t quite extensive skills training, nor did it have adults who were pushing their kids into it, so there was more of a level playing field. Contrast this with baseball or basketball, where it really was about how much time your dad spent teaching you the basics.
But I didn’t like team dodgeball. What we played most of the time was elimination. You’d throw the ball up, somebody would get it, they could take 1 step (I believe) and then would have to throw the ball at somebody. If it hit somebody without them catching it, they were out. If somebody caught the ball, then the thrower was out. Games were short, people were happy to play again and again. There was a bit of pain, but unlike baseball, very little boredom.
Oh, here’s another thing. Nobody was ever excluded from the game. In team sports, if you’re no good, you don’t get a chance. You’re off in left field watching the dandelions. In Elimination, someobody has to throw at you, in which case you always have a chance to either dodge or catch. So it was far more inclusive and also egalitarian, since surprising things would happen.
No wonder we played it 🙂 I hadn’t thought this through. I did team sports through a local company that would collect us all after school in a minibus and take us to the city playing fields and organize games. I had no skills and was bored silly. How strange, things I hadn’t thought of in ages.