The following is largely off-topic but plausibly a part of the ongoing Tales of ’73 series. Read it or don’t, your choice.
I’ve mentioned before how I associate certain songs with playing organized park-and-rec baseball in the summer, which I did between the ages of nine (or maybe it was eight) and 13. On a recent weekend trip, we got to watch one of our nephews play Little League, and as I sat there, I thought about how different his experience is from mine.
At our nephew’s game, the stands were full of parents and grandparents (and uncles and aunts) cheering their kids on. When I played, the stands were usually almost empty. A few mothers would be there to watch, including my own, if she didn’t have an hour’s worth of errands to run during the game. I am pretty sure Dad (who had been a decent ballplayer as a young man) never saw me play—on a sunny summer weekday good enough for baseball, he’d have farm work to do. (That didn’t bother me. It’s just the way it was.)
Our nephews play as part of the official Little League organization, with traveling all-star teams and the theoretical chance to play in the Little League World Series. Our Little League was just a name. In fact, when I was nine/eight/whatever, the league I played in was called Midget League. It may have been a coach-pitched league, although I can no longer remember. The teams had names like Mets and Cubs and Giants, and I played in it for a year, maybe two. At some later point, I aged up to Little League. There, the teams had actual sponsors—my team one year was Monroe Glass Company. It was no longer a coach-pitched league, but it remained pretty informal. There were no individual coaches for each team, as in my nephew’s league; a guy from the park-and-rec department helped our teams get their lineups together and then umpired the games from behind the pitcher’s mound. And he must have made sure that the scrubs got to play, because I did.
The entire league was run by essentially one guy, so if I’m recalling correctly, practices were pretty perfunctory. We watched demonstrations and did a lot of drills, but individual instruction was practically nil. In the games, you went to your position and did the best you could with whatever instinct or talent you’d been born with.
This was a problem for me, of course, because I had only enthusiasm and a bit of instinct, with even less talent. I would require plenty of coaching to be anything more than terrible. Not only that, I wanted to be a catcher—apart from pitcher, the most ridiculous position for somebody with no talent who gets no coaching. But instead of telling me I should choose a position more suited to my skills, the park-and-rec guy put me back there, and the results were predictable.
Playing was hell. I had no fking idea how to play catcher beyond what I’d seen Randy Hundley or Manny Sanguillen or Johnny Bench do on TV, and the only feedback I got was my own teammates yelling at me to stop being so terrible. (The pitchers tended to be the best athletes and socially prominent besides, which added to the impact of the misery they inflicted.) The concept of supporting your teammates, practically the first commandment in organized youth sports today, was a foreign one then. I have suspected in succeeding years that permitting the scornful dismissal of the halt and the lame by the other players may have been, if not a deliberate tactic by the park-and-rec department, a way of solving a problem by ignoring it: the poor players, no longer willing to be torn to shreds by their betters at every game and practice, would eventually weed themselves out. And after the summer of 1973, I did precisely that.
I am pretty selective about the grudges I choose to carry, and this isn’t worthy of one. But I do think about it sometimes. The way I, and kids such as I, were treated wasn’t fair. We wanted to play, the same as the other kids, and we were willing to try and learn to be better players, but we were humiliated for it.
It stung for a while, until I made peace with my limitations. I played Church League softball for a few years after that, and on radio station teams when that was a thing. By then, enthusiasm was enough.