When it really was a game

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Andy Sauer

Andy Sauer

Forty years ago, my mother was doing her best to persevere from an acrimonious divorce. She packed everything she owned and her kids, and steered her lifeboat to the nearest island that could support life. That place was a vast apartment complex in Cranston, R.I.

The place was exactly what you would imagine: a low-rent apartment complex in 1977 would be: full of stressed-out, over-worked parents – many of whom were in the same boat as my mom – with kids who ran wild in a suburban version of Lord of the Flies.

The place was not without its amenities. It had a pool, tennis courts, a playground and a weed-choked open field just a small step up from a sandlot on which we would play endless games of baseball.

This was not softball. This was not Wiffleball. This was hardball. We did not have safety equipment. There were no coaches. There were no umps. There were no grownups. Just kids with gloves, aluminum bats and any baseballs we could round up.

A typical game started with a morning round-up of players. Organizing parties would split up and go door-to-door. If you were between the ages of 8 and 12, boy or girl, you were fair game. The goal was to recruit as many as possible, which ranged from 5 to as many as 24, and accommodations such as closing right field and a dedicated pitcher would be made to suit the numbers.

Once assembled at the field, certain rituals had to be observed. The oldest kids naturally would be designated captains and would pick the teams.

Once the sides were established and the ground rules laid (e.g. “four fouls equals an out” or “the road is home run territory”), one of the captains would toss a bat to the other and each would alternate their grip on the bat, inching toward the top of the handle. The captain whose hand reached the end won the exercise and would have the choice of batting at the top or bottom of the inning. Great care and observation would be employed to determine the winner – all five fingers had to be able touch the opposition’s hand to grab the bat.

And, then the game would start.

Loose attention would be paid to the actual score. Games stretched interminably as no one really kept track of the innings. Greater importance was put on the moment: The desire to hit a home run or make a diving catch. Such was the focus on play that pitchers were encouraged to just pitch it over the plate so the batter could hit it.

The older kids taught and mentored the younger ones, not out of a sense of duty but to improve the level of play. Mistakes, whether a batter who was determined to bat cross-handed or one who needed to choke up on the bat, were corrected, and bad attitudes were prohibited. After all, you might not be asked to play again.

There were times close plays threatened to end games. Arguments would break out. Rules would be cited, past disagreements brought up and usually it would be agreed to just simply “do-over.”

The shadows would lengthen and cars would park in spots dangerously close to the field of play. One player after another would take off and head home for dinner until all that remained was usually a handful of players too stubborn to accept the game was over. Sometimes a band of teenagers, smoking cigarettes and fooling around, would hang menacingly too close to the field, and we’d clear out.

The next day, if we were lucky, it would start all over again.

Come September of that year, my mom would land a decent job that enabled her to buy a three-bedroom ranch home in a nice suburban section of Warwick, R.I., just a few blocks from a park with a few baseball fields that no one used.

There were plenty of kids around the neighborhood, but they just stayed inside. There were plenty of kids who wanted to play baseball, but it was tough to get enough people to make it worthwhile. Usually what wound up happening was a few of us would play Wiffleball in someone’s backyard and make use of invisible runners to pad our ranks.

The following spring my mom signed me up for my first season in Little League, whereupon I tore things up with such glee and abandon, I made the All Star Team. My coach, who was aware that I had never played organized baseball before and saw a single mom carting me to and from practice, asked me who taught me how to play baseball.  I shrugged and said “the kids in the neighborhood.”

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