On the eve of Ohio’s state tournament baseball weekend, columnist and baseball nostalgic Greg Hoard lends some perspective to a cultural shift – and what it CAN be like for young boys who just want to play and enjoy the game.
Cincinnati – He dropped his gear on the porch and fell into the nearest chair. “Man,” he said, “I’m beat.”
“I can tell, Bud.”
He looked like he’d survived his first forced march. His uniform was dirty and torn at one knee. He took off his cap and mopped his brow. Dried sweat and dirt left their trail on his face. His hair was a tangled mop. He took a look at his knee. There was some blood.
“Not much,” he said. “It’ll be okay.”
“Yeah,” he said, “we lost. Lost by two. Four-to-two, I think. Maybe it was 5-to-3. I dunno. I’m not real sure.”
He was quiet then, something on his mind besides the score or how he had played. Whatever it was, it was wearing on him. Time passed, neither of us speaking.
“You know,” he said, finally. “We played pretty good until the end there, then things kinda fell apart on us.”
“Yeah. Well d’you do okay? You didn’t mess, did ya?”
“Ah, no. I got a couple of hits. It’s just, you know, stuff.”
“Stuff” turned out to be a few moves the coach made that my young friend did not understand. Seems there was a pitching change while his team had a two-run lead and some changes at positions.
“He does that sometimes,” he said, referring to his coach. “Maybe it’s the rules, like everybody has to play. I’m not sure on that one. I’ve had to come out and sometimes I don’t start. It’s not like baseball—I mean real baseball.”
“You mean like the pros, right?”
“Yeah, you know. The best guys play. Like that. I’ve talked to my dad about it.”
“Yeah, and what does he say.”
He shrugged. “He says, ‘Hang in there, Hank. This is Knot Hole. Everybody has to go through it. That’s the rules.’”
“And you are cool with that?”
He looked at me for a long time before answering. It was like he was sorting out what he could say and what he wanted to say.
“Well,” he said, eyeing me closely. “You got somethin’ to drink?”
I couldn’t help but laugh. Hank is eight or nine years old, just getting his feet wet in organized baseball. We’ve been close for years. For his age, he is an accomplished baseball player; a better hockey player. He is also masterful at avoiding uncomfortable topics or skirting a sticky subject.
As I poured Coke over crushed ice, he warmed to the subject.
“See, the kid they put in to pitch, he’s no pitcher. He’s a good guy, but he’s no pitcher. So, you can figure what happens.”
There were lots of walks, a hit batsman or two. All of a sudden the game is tied. Then, they change pitchers again and the other team takes the lead.
“We don’t catch up ‘cause the kids he put in, well, they don’t hit. So,” and he shrugs again with some finality, “we lose.”
“So, ya lost. Ya play again this week, right?”
“Yeah, but you ain’t heard the worst of it yet, Mister Hoard.”
“Haven’t,” I said.
“Haven’t, what?” he said.
“I haven’t heard the worst, not ain’t.”
“Oh, yeah. So the worst is the yelling.”
“Yelling? What are you talking about?”
“The yelling. The grown-ups. The parents. Some bad stuff, too.”
“They were yelling at the umpire, I guess.”
“Yeah, and a lot. But some were yelling at kids, their kids, I think. It was bad. One kid was crying.”
“He was crying—on the field?”
“In the dugout.”
“Did people see this?”
“I’m not real sure what all happened. The umpire was gonna throw people out. He almost stopped the game. He said it was gonna be a forfeit or something like that.”
“Jesus,” I said. “Oh, sorry.”
“It’s okay,” he said. “I heard worse. Today.”
“So, what happened—finally.”
He looked off, replaying it in his mind—trying to make some sense of it.
“Coach just got us in the dugout. Said he was sorry. He said things like this shouldn’t happen.”
“H’s right, you know. It should never happen and the folks who do that, they shouldn’t be allowed to be around kids’ games. It’s a bad thing.”
He nodded, thought that over. “But, it’s just a few and it seems like it’s always the same ones. My mom and dad were real mad about it.”
Again, he slipped into one of those quiet spaces—thinking. He sat there, looking down at his bat bag, his hat in his hand.
“Mister Hoard, can I ask you a question?”
“Sure, Bud. You know you can.”
“When you were a kid, when you were little, ya know playing ball and stuff, did parents come to the games?”
I laughed. He was surprised first then he smiled. “What? That’s funny?”
“Yeah, in a way. When I was playing Little League and stuff parents hardly ever—if at all—came to games. They had better stuff to do or more important stuff.”
“Oh, yeah. Most kids rode bikes to the games. Me and some other guys—lived out in the country—folks dropped us off and picked us up when the games were over.”
This idea seemed to confound him. “Where did they go? What did they do?”
“Shopping. Hairdresser. Grocery store. Tavern,” I said. “That was a big one. Sometimes they would just go down in the glen, sit at the picnic tables and talk.”
He was incredulous. “They didn’t watch?”
“Maybe an inning. Bud, it was kid ball, nothing more.”
“And nobody yelled?”
“It didn’t matter. It was kid ball. We yelled. The coaches did. Then, the umpires said shut-up and everybody shut-up.”
“Hmm, just like that?”
“Yeah, just like that.”
He thought about this for a good long while, then he looked up, as thoughtful as an eight- or nine-year-old can be. He looks at me and says, “Mister Hoard, you watch a lot of baseball, don’t ya?”
I tell him I do, as much as I can. He says, “You seen those commercials where they show the big leaguers tossing their bats in the air and doing all the high-five and celebrating and stuff and then Mike Trout—ya know him, right, he’s the best—he says, ‘Let the kids play.’ You seen that?”
I assured him that I had, that it was pretty good.
“I think,” he says, “they ought to put that on signs at every ball field—‘Let the kids play!—and have a cop there or a sheriff and if grown-ups start yelling and stuff, they get dragged off. What d’ya think?”
“I think, my young friend, you are on to something.”
He smiled, then, big and broad and happy, stood and picked up his gear. “There’s only one thing wrong,” he said, giving me a crooked grin.
“Never gonna happen.”