Saturday, June 11, 2005

Play Ball!? Not For Today's Kids

(the following column can also be viewed at, where a new column from yours truly appears each Sunday or Monday. They will also appear here for your reading pleasure. For archives of my columns there, go to and click on "Columnists")

Do kids play baseball anymore?

I don’t mean high schoolers. I don’t mean college students. I mean, kids. You know, 11 and 12 year-olds, that sort. Does Little League still exist, or has it gone the way of drive-in movie theaters, penny gumballs and the use of turn signals on cars?

I’m 41, and when I was a kid, we played baseball in some way, shape or form constantly as soon as the mercury hit 60 degrees. If it wasn’t a pickup game at the local school’s ball fields then it was curb ball or "500" or a game of "pickle." I won’t take the time to explain these activities if you haven’t heard of them. Suffice it to say that a baseball mitt was as common an accessory to a bike’s handlebars as piercings are to a hip-hop fan.

And therein lies the lament. I fear we are losing today’s youth to video games, raunchy, dark music and cell phones, with their text messaging, built-in cameras, and basically anything other than the ability to make phone calls. Boy, I sound like an old fogie, huh?

But really, how much trouble can a kid get into by playing ball? How negative is the influence of an aluminum bat and a pair of cleats? Oh, why don’t kids play baseball anymore?

Look, I don’t have any scientific, statistical evidence to support my claim, but I nonetheless assure you that today’s parks and neighborhoods are becoming less and less populated by baseball-playing kids as the years go on. Think about where you live. Have you heard the popping of baseballs into mitts and the chatter of pre-teens as they call their field and confirm that a foul ball on strike three is an out and declare that the rules of the game are either "pitcher’s hand" or "pitcher’s mound"? Have you driven around your environs and seen a Little League game in action? Isn’t all this few and far between?

So much to do, yet nothing to do

Now, I admit I don’t hang around with any 12 year-old boys -- my name’s not Michael Jackson, after all -- but our daughter Nicole, who’s 12, knows a few, and never are they playing baseball. Riding their bikes? Sure -- and that’s good. Playing Grand Theft Auto on Playstation Two? Yep -- and that’s not so good. Nicole plays that, too, and while that doesn’t exactly warm my heart, I at least have the security of knowing that my wife and I have reared her in such a way that she knows that just about all that is depicted on that game is WRONG. But baseball may as well be a science project sent home for extra credit for as much as it isn’t embraced by today’s youth.

So why don’t kids play ball anymore? Well, it can’t be the cost; it doesn’t get much cheaper than a bat, ball and glove. It’s not like you have to buy expensive equipment and pay for ice time, like hockey. It can’t be the number of participants needed for a form of the game, like football, because all you need for a bit of catch is two, and not much more for a decent game of pickup. It can’t be availability of venues. If you have a strip of street or a yard, you can play a little baseball. And a lot of actual ball diamonds and softball fields are mostly vacant, practically inviting a game.

Part of the blame, I believe, can be placed squarely on the shoulders of the Tigers. We’ve been subjected to so much bad baseball around here for the last 12 years that we’ve lost half a generation’s interest. Look about you next time you’re at the mall. See how many Chauncey Billups, Steve Yzerman and Joey Harrington jerseys you come across, versus that of Dmitri Young or Pudge Rodriguez. It ain’t even close, folks. Granted, not all of the kids who wear those colors are playing basketball or hockey or football, either, but you get the feeling they at least have enough interest to catch a game on TV or talk about it at school. But with the Tigers as putrid as they’ve been since the first Clinton administration, what else do you expect?

But it’s not just the poor Tigers. Today’s youngsters just have so many distractions. There is everything to do, yet nothing to do, really. How enriching are three hours of Playstation or Game Boy? How much does a session on the Internet add to a child’s personal development? How beneficial is it to our kids’ psyche to listen to music with lyrics so dark and sassy that it makes one long for the time when the swiveling hips of Elvis or the long hair of the Beatles was the worse it could get? But it’s so much easier for parents, isn’t it, to let their kids spend all afternoon trying to reach the next level of the latest video game than it is to nudge them outside, much less with a ball and bat? I know I’m guilty of it.

When we played ball as kids, we did it almost as much to fill time as anything else. There were only so many reruns of "The Three Stooges" or "Lost In Space" one could stomach, after all. Honestly, I think we played ball to stave off boredom half the time. But once we got our rear ends out there, you needed a nuclear bomb to get us away from the playing field. We didn’t always let darkness or mother’s cries of "Dinner!" stop us. And even if we did lose some players from the game, all that meant was there’d be more "imaginary" runners on second and maybe right field was off limits -- unless you batted lefthanded, of course, in which case left field was out.

I also think this goes beyond just baseball. It was once said about the New York Yankees and their lack of camaraderie, "When the Yankees go out to dinner together, they sit at 25 separate tables." Today’s kids are together, yet they aren’t. Each of them is in their own home, in front of their own television, or computer, each trying to kill the most dudes with their own joysticks, all so they can talk about it at school the next day. If you’re lucky, you might get some form of buddy behavior if two of them try to kill dudes with a joystick at one of their homes. So they’re not just not playing baseball. They’re not doing a lot of things, but I suppose you can’t fault them for blowing off some steam after 35 hours a week of school and another 10 of homework. Our fifth grade daughter is toting around textbooks in her backpack that dwarf some of mine from college for goodness sakes.

I know I could do better, though. There’s nothing keeping me from blowing the dust off my mitt, buying an inexpensive model for Nicole, and having a game of catch. Nothing other than my fear that she’d find it so boring that she would never want to do it again. Get my drift? Still, it’s probably worth a shot. Someone under 15 has to start playing this game again, for crying out loud.

There used to be a decent patch of grass across the street from our house, next to the private school that sits there, where some kids used to goof around with baseball. I wasn’t always thrilled with their language, but I overlooked it mostly, happy to see them having fun with a tennis ball, a bat, and Lord knows what for bases. But then the school expanded, and there’s a parking lot there now, where the "mound" and "plate" used to be located. I have a hunch that the whole thing drips with irony, but I’d rather not analyze it that hard. It’s bad enough to think that it’s one less place for kids to play baseball.

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