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Of empty ballfields and vanishing childhoods

Posted at 1:19 PM on May 20, 2005 by Bob Collins (4 Comments)

Nobody plays pick-up baseball games anymore and it's a crime because no one should ever spend a moment as a child never having played the game just to play the game. Our kids are scheduled now. Everything has to be organized. And when they play, they have to have uniforms, and their ball bags lined up on the backstop like good soldiers. And, oh yeah, no move can be made without having a parent acting like the full scholarship to Yale is on the line.

Been by a ballfield lately? For the most part, they're empty. Or if there are kids on it, you can bet that there's an adult around running the show.

They're usually busy between 6 and 9 in the evenings when the local youth league has 'em, but you never see pick-up games on them. Kids don't know how to have pick-up games. And it's a shame.

I was fortunate to grow up in a home next to a ballfield. And every day -- or so it seemed -- we'd find enough neighborhood kids around to have a little ballgame. And if there weren't any kids around, then between me and my two brothers and two sisters, we could find something to do with a bat, glove, and ball.

The game was called Scrub and I don't remember who taught it to us but it's baseball without teams. When someone wanted to play a game of Scrub -- say on the playground behind the school at recess or before the doors opened (before Mommy and Daddy dropped kids off in the SUV to the school's front patio) -- he or she simply yelled "Scrub!" (pronounced Scruuu --- uhhh--- uubbb) and then the next person would yell "Scrub One," and the next "Scrub Two" and so on and so forth. (This was, we would later realize, our first foray into computer language in which the first item is not one, but 0.)

Scrub, Scrub One, Scrub Two, and Scrub Three would bat first and everyone else would take the field. You could bat as many times as you wanted, until you made an out. Hit a fly ball out to Scrub 11? Scrub 11 comes in to bat and you go to Scrub-11-field. For strikeouts and regular outs, the field would rotate as in volleyball until the pitcher was the next to go to bat.

It was perfect baseball. Nobody kept score. The goal was just to ... you

I don't remember anyone stopping to watch a game of scrub and if they did, they certainly didn't yell "C'mon Bobby, keep your eye on the ball" in a voice that was identical to the one that urged me to clean up my room.

We made and had friends, we organized ourselves, we dealt with whatever disputes arose. But more than anything, we loved baseball. We loved it so much we wanted to play it all the time. We loved it so much the fields became potmarked and rutted with the well-worn travel of Scrub 5 scurrying out to Scrub11-field. Did you ever watch the movie Sandlot? That was us.

We all grew up and left our home fields, of course. I went off to college where when I wasn't studying, I was playing pickup ballgames with some friends on the ballfields on Boston Common. I'd stand out there in leftfield and look at the Boston skyline, and the wide ballfield and think, "it just doesn't get any better."

So when I pass a ballfield now I'm back at third spearing a line drive that was headed for Dougie Shaw's face as he played umpire. I'm cork-screwing into the ground trying to hit whatever it is that Mike Kelly just did with that Wiffle Ball. I'm frustrated that the best ballplayer on Team Collins was a girl. And I'm sad that thousands of kids are growing up with no memories to accompany them on their walks past empty ballfields.

Comments (4)

Why did I have to grow up in the 90's?!?

Posted by TwinsJunkie | May 20, 2005 8:50 PM

Amen brother. Some of the best days of summer as a kid was playing pick up baseball. The tossing of the bat between two Captains who would move up it's shaft palm over palm until the fought for the very nub at the top for the first pick was how we did it in my 'hood in Chicago. And we played all day. You had to drag us off the field for lunch which was ice cold lemonade and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on Wonder bread (it was made down the street after all) and then we were back for the second half, a new bat toss and everyone was picked again. Everyone played, we were all pretending we were running onto the Wrigley Field. Hi Ernie (Ernie Banks). Hey Fergie (Ferguson Jenkins), play 'em tight Billy (Billy Williams). These were special special days as a kid. I miss them greatly.

Bill James

Posted by BJ | May 22, 2005 12:55 AM

Hey Bob,
Was I the "best ballplayer" you were talking about on team Collins? Didn't you hate it when I struck you out with that sinker pitch? love,your sister, Cheryl

Posted by cheryl Collins | May 23, 2005 5:41 AM

No lie. She could hit. She could pitch. She could throw. For a young kid, she was all the things you don't want in a sister. (g) As an old-timer, she's all the things you do.

'cept for the Red Sox stuff...

Posted by Bob Collins | May 23, 2005 12:15 PM

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