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Sand-lot baseball: a far-fetched idea?

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By John Shindlebower

It’s still not officially summer but the heat and humidity of mid-June makes one dread the coming July and August. But save for a two-week dead period mandated by the Kentucky High School Athletic Association, student-athletes from Spencer County High will be busy with camps and workouts in the coming months as they prepare for the upcoming seasons.

What is accomplished during the season is often determined by the effort put forth right now. High school sports have become  year-round activities for athletes who want to compete at a high level and coaches have to try to keep track of opportunities for off-season training.

It’s not limited to high school athletes either. Players are dedicating more and more  time at younger ages. There are traveling teams, all-star teams and opportunities that will keep families on the road virtually every weekend of the summer and beyond. I guess for a very select few, such effort may prove beneficial, but I often wonder how much more enjoyment a kid would get just being a kid.

I was listening to a former big league ballplayer on the radio the other day talking about all the structure involving youth sports these days. As a young kid growing up, he said he didn’t have that many opportunities until he was older, and he talked about how kids of his generation honed their skills on the sand-lots in their neighborhood.

I know the specialized instruction that today’s young people get can be useful, but I wonder if the lessons learned on the sand-lot aren’t just as valuable if not more. Sand-lot baseball is a game that’s free from the influence (and intrusion) of adults and it forces kids to learn on their own. On the sand-lot, leaders can emerge, friendships are forged, and a love of a game that is natural and not forced can be developed.

In a couple of weeks the Little League season will be over for most young players. There will be a handful that are picked for all-star teams, but for the rest of the kids, the baseball season is over. As one who coached youth sports for several years, I typically found the end of the season to be frustrating because there were always a few kids on the team who were just starting to catch on and develop right as the season came to an end. For those kids, the end of the season meant the end of their progress and for many, discouragement.

Even more frustrating is knowing that the community’s baseball fields sit empty and unused most of the time during the summer months. Sure, a lot of kids would rather spend their days playing video games or on the computer during the summer months, but I can’t help but think there aren’t a few out there who would love to bring their glove to the park and just play. No coaches, no uniforms, no umpires, no parents, just other kids.

As someone who loves baseball and as someone who thinks that kids who get left off those select teams deserve a chance to keep playing, I’ve wondered about the feasibility of a low-structure sand-lot program during the summer months. Parents could bring the kids down to the park, an adult volunteer could be on hand to make sure the kids had a few baseballs and just to provide oversight in case there was an injury, and the kids would take over from there.

 

Parents could go get an ice cream at Dairy Queen, or they could walk around the park for an hour or so while the kids just played – free from the pressures of adults looking on and critiquing every swing and miss or every botched grounder.

Growing up I remember playing ball with the neighborhood kids. The biggest challenges were finding a field large and level enough and hoping someone had an old baseball in their closet we could use. Sometimes we’d have to resort to using a tennis ball. We never had enough players, so we came up with rule variations like the mound rule, where as long as the ball was returned to the pitcher before the runner reached first – he was out. And who can forget the use of ghost runners when each team didn’t even have enough players to fill the bases?

Maybe I’m stuck in a Norman Rockwell fantasy that has long passed and will never return. Or maybe kids today would enjoy the same things kids of yesteryear enjoyed if just given the same opportunities. I’m leaning toward the latter. I know if you get kids out of the house and put them near a creek, something natural takes over and before long, they’re splashing, wading and skipping rocks. And no one has to show them how.

Same with sports for most kids. Put them on a field, give them a ball and a bunch of other kids who like baseball more than they like adult-driven organization, and wonderful things can happen. Anyone else think allowing kids to be kids might be a good idea?

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I really appreciate the skill and athleticism involved in soccer. My daughter played the sport from the time she was four all the way through high school and I even found myself coaching for a few years when she was younger.  But I really wouldn’t call myself a soccer fan and I find it almost unbearable when American sports fans are shamed into joining the rest of the world to embrace the sport.

When I was a kid in the 70s, it was believed that soccer was going to be the next big thing in America. While youth soccer really has developed here, popularity of the sport at the professional level just never really took off. Apparently, the experts were wrong. I think they were the same ‘experts’ who told me in sixth grade that by the mid 80s – America would be switching over to the metric system. I still couldn’t tell you how far a kilometer is and I still don’t understand the offsides rule in soccer, why they can’t find a way to break a tie, and how they keep playing even after the clock hits 0:00.

The World Cup is undoubtedly a huge event around the globe and understandably so. But for whatever reason, Americans at large have been slow to warm up to the sport on a large scale. That’s neither a negative nor a positive – it’s just reality. While it doesn’t elevate us above the rest of the world, it certainly doesn’t make somehow inferior – although that seems to be the message some soccer enthusiasts want to send about our general apathy toward the game.

So if you like soccer – enjoy the next few weeks. If you don’t like soccer  - try to endure the endless coverage and just realize that in a month – all minds will be back on baseball, football mini-camps and in Kentucky, the countdown to midnight madness in October.