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?” The whole side of my face was beet-red and my head was swimming, but I would be damned if anyone was going to see me cry. I got to second base on a fielder’s choice, but the next player flew out and the inning was over. I came to the bench, took three side-steps, and lost my footing, having suffered a concussion. It was only then that any sign of something wrong was detected. I’m not saying that’s the right way, but it proves a point. We were made of different stuff back then.
Gruff Or Gracious
I recall fearing some of my coaches over the years, the way they barked and growled, and their impatience as players didn’t always understand immediately what the coaches wanted. After a full day at the job and a quick dinner, the men would teach us baseball in the evenings. Today’s coaches look like Jack LaLanne and have all this enthusiasm. They wear lycra and spandex, and bike to practice. They have mottos and handouts and clipboards, and say things like, “Watch it all the way into your glove, Bobby.” A far cry from “Who the %$@# is up next? Get a @!#$%&* helmet on!” And the parents, oh, have they come full circle. Sometimes I listen from the sidelines. “Good try. Good effort. Next time, buddy--that’s okay. Settle down, guys, we can come back from that.” Contrast that with parents’ comments from my era: “Oh, for cryin’ out loud, Eddie, what the heck were you thinkin’?” Parents are now so afraid to damage anyone’s psyche that we simply compliment the good, the bad and the horrible. I once had a kid walk to first base on a long ball that he thought was going over the fence. Instead, it was fielded cleanly, and he was still a step from the bag. At the last minute he hopped to the base. Had he been hustling he could have been to third base by then. As he stood on first, his dad yelled out, “Way to pick it up, buddy.” I dropped my head and shook out the noise. God forbid he should hustle all the way through.
A Fighting Chance
At the beginning of spring in our neighborhood, the coaches gather for “draft day” in preparation for summer leagues. The kids go through throwing, fielding and hitting drills, and the talent is assessed and recorded. A cumulative score is kept, and a secret list ranks the players from top to bottom--all intended to ensure the teams are evenly divided throughout the season. The draft is always handled in a gentlemanly fashion, and the talent is displaced fairly, but it seems so … professional.
I was an asthmatic kid who suffered the embarrassment of sitting out during some of the President’s Physical Fitness Tests in elementary school. I played pickup baseball because my friends let me play in my limited fashion. Mark and Pat Livengood, Kevin Iceman, Tim and David Elliott, they all bent the rules so I could play. They waited while I puffed around the bases, and stood patiently while I hacked up a lung when I finally got to home plate. By the age of 10, I was so sick of being the exception that I followed Patrick to organized baseball practice and asked his coach, Mr. Stewart, if he would let me practice with the team to see if I could even play on that level. He made me believe I could. The following year, he contacted Len Thasho and told him I was a kid who needed some extra attention, but was a hustling and willing contender. Mr. Thasho and his son Garry helped me learn the game, and handled me with great patience. They were the type of people who didn’t swear, didn’t yell, and took the responsibility seriously for shaping boys into lovers of the game. By the time I reached eighth grade, I was strong enough to letter in football and baseball, and by ninth grade, my running and training had so improved that I actually ran on the cross-country team. Me. Running long-distance races. I was never in first place, but I always finished. Always. There are rules today that ensure everyone gets a chance and everyone gets to bat and everyone is treated fairly, but I submit I am what I am today because I had to fight for that chance, and when people--coaches and kids alike--saw that I was willing to fight for it, they extended a hand. They didn’t carry me, they didn’t coddle me, but they stood next to me and helped me find my balance. In summary, we’re doing much more to protect and support our kids today, but in order for that to happen, we suffered the loss of “neighborhoods,” the diminished importance of pride and, most obviously, the will to make things better for oneself instead of complaining. Some parents still encourage their kids to achieve by striving, practicing and enduring. They’re the ones building capable, independent people with a “leg up” on their future.
Ron Ciancutti is the Purchasing Manager for Cleveland Metroparks. He can be reached via e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org