By Ken Lass
I was driving through a Trussville neighborhood recently when I saw something that warmed my heart. A group of children were gathered in an empty lot playing baseball. They looked to range between about eight and twelve years old, and they were having a blast. There were no uniforms, no coaches, no scoreboards, no beautifully manicured ball diamonds, no bleachers full of emotional parents and grandparents.
You almost never see that anymore, and there are good reasons for it. The trend seems to be toward building huge houses with small yards, so most families don’t have a yard big enough on which to play ball. Some of the newer subdivisions have a common ball diamond in the playground area, but you rarely see anybody using it.
Then too, the time when mom and dad could feel okay with their child running out the door unsupervised to go play in somebody else’s yard is, sadly, long past. In this scary world we live in today, parents want their eyeballs on the kids as much as possible, and I don’t blame them. Then there are video games and the internet. Why play ball outside when you can slay dragons and alien invaders in your bedroom, while munching on trail mix and slurping down a Coke?
It wasn’t always so. I grew up back in prehistoric times, the late 1950s and early 60s, far before anybody knew what a computer chip was, much less a QR code. Seeing those kids play ball took me back fondly to those days, when the topic of conversation on the school bus ride home was always, whose yard is the game in today? We would bolt off the bus, rush into the house, knock down a quick snack, then grab our ball glove and favorite bat and head out to the designated backyard to play for a few hours until the sun went down.
We had to improvise. First base was a rock. Second base was a piece of cardboard. Third base was my friend Joey’s T-shirt. He hated that shirt, but his mom made him wear it, so he quickly stripped it off once out of sight. Home plate was a ball glove supplied by somebody from the team at-bat. There was an understanding that it was unnecessary to step on it when batting or scoring. We didn’t have to choose upsides. We knew who we wanted to play with.
There was no outfield wall. Nobody put up privacy fences in those days. The lots were huge and wide open, and the boundary was the woods. If you managed to hit the ball into the woods, you just kept running the bases while the outfielders searched frantically for the ball amidst the brush, the leaves, and the scattered patches of poison ivy. There were frequent disputes about the score, but when it became too dark to continue playing, we all just headed home, not really caring who won. Man, I miss those days.
I frequently go jogging through the Trussville sports park on busy Saturdays. Often baseball, football, soccer, and lacrosse are all in full swing. Cars are parked everywhere. In fact, creative parking has become an art form on days like that. Sometimes I stop for a few minutes to observe a ball game from a distance. I see the kids stepping up to the plate, with a capacity crowd watching and reacting to their every move, while coaches yell instructions. I would have been petrified at that age. Are they enjoying and basking in all the attention? Or just feeling pressure and stress?
I certainly have no problem with organized youth sports. It gives our young people something constructive to do and teaches them many positive traits. And there is always the chance your child may excel and begin the path that leads to a scholarship one day. The Trussville Park & Rec department does a great job at what must be a daunting task, finding fields and time slots for hundreds of games and thousands of kids.
I just find myself comparing the kids under those expensive batting helmets to the ones I saw in that empty lot and wonder who’s having more fun.
(Ken Lass is a retired Birmingham TV news and sports anchor, and Trussville resident since 1989.)