I haven’t always loved baseball, but right on cue, as soon as I did, people said it’s a dying sport — especially in the youth divisions. According to the National Sporting Goods Association, from 2000 to 2009 the number of 7-17-year-old kids playing baseball dropped 24 percent. Other sports like football and hockey had significant growth in the same amount of time.
People attribute baseball’s decline to a variety of things: the (supposed) slow pace of the game, the increasing need for costly specialization (having the best bat, glove, etc.), and better efforts behind other youth sports organizations to recruit young players.
But if we look at what has always made baseball special, especially in Little League, it becomes clear that baseball’s decline actually mirrors a shift in more general American values.
My love for baseball didn’t grow at a Padres game or at Fenway. It came while I sat wringing my hands on the bleachers of my sons’ Little League games. Because that’s where it became clear to me that baseball is everything that is America.
First is the metaphor for home. Home plate. Home run. Home team. All of the strategy of baseball centers on getting home. When a Little Leaguer steps away from home plate, he begins a journey around the bases that is the visual and physical equivalent of narrative gold: getting home.
Some of the best literature has at its core an element of returning “home.” In Little League, that narrative arc — the suspense, the tragedy and resolution — plays out over and over again, and more so than in the Majors, where rounding the bases, surprisingly, seems like an infrequent event due to every player’s mastery of the game. And too often, MLB players go home in one hit: a home run.
But in Little League, players struggle game after game to get on first base. When they steal second, no one is sure they will make it. And when the player crosses home plate for the first time — well, you can be sure his parents, however subconsciously, are thinking about his childhood and eventual independence.
The game might still have five innings left, but that player just had his Field of Dreams moment.
Which is another great thing about baseball: team effort and personal opportunity coexist. No position on the field is unimportant, and every player has a role to fill. If you aren’t the best hitter, you can work at being a great fielder. Or maybe you’re a pinch runner. There are many ways to contribute to the team. But each inning, when a child gets up to bat in Little League, he has his moment in the spotlight. He might be in right field for four innings, but each time at bat is a new opportunity to shatter the lights in the outfield. Or so he believes. Because every kid is Roy Hobbs when he is at bat.
And when the boy returns to the dugout, sometimes defeated, that’s when perhaps the most magical part of Little League happens: Mom isn’t there to make it better. In a society where helicopter parents micromanage all the details of children’s lives, where walking to school alone is “too risky,” the Little League dugout represents one of childhood’s last places where a boy can experience defeat, triumph, and heartbreak without being under Mom’s watchful eye.
A child’s character is built as much in the dugout as it is on the field.
But perhaps our society doesn’t value these things anymore. Many American parents don’t like being separated from their child, not able to offer water and hugs. And our celebrity-obsessed culture has taught kids that being part of the team is less exciting than being the one and only star. Some kids don’t want to be patient. They need constant action and quick rewards. Waiting to “go home” feels boring.
And yet there is a reason why Hollywood has made so many movies about baseball. It’s one of the few sports where the game itself, not its stars, tells the story. It’s a narrative we all know.
That a boy’s Little League years coincide with him becoming a young man is surely part of it. A boy starts Little League idolizing the older players on his team. He hopes that in four years he will be as good as them. So he tosses a ball at the ceiling in his bed. He sleeps with his glove on. And he believes, will all that he has, that next year (please!) he will hit his growth spurt.
Not every player does. And, unfortunately, boys age out of the league around the same time they hit the really awkward years of middle school, solidifying — magnifying — for them the struggle and triumph that was Little League. It’s frozen in time as magical years, a new idea of “home” that many boys will come back to in their minds as grown men, hopefully in the backyard, when they are playing pass with their own Little Leaguer.
Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at Facebook.com/Sarah.is.Smiley.