My Own Private Sandlot

So here’s my most recent column, in which I provide a retrospective on my days playing backyard baseball.

A couple weeks ago, our sports editor opined the state of modern children. He said they are no longer tough after becoming hooked on Xbox rather than less sedentary games such as capture the flag. I tend to agree with him, and I couldn’t help but wonder if this trend spells disaster for one of my adolescent pastimes, backyard baseball.

Backyard baseball isn’t a colloquial or regional term for rec league baseball nor pony league baseball nor colt league baseball nor any other equine-themed league. It was just a handful of neighborhood guys behind my house playing ball.

They had nothing on us.

It’s true that I grew up in suburban Chicago; however, I didn’t live in one of the cookie-cutter subdivisions that are becoming so prevalent in suburbia. The biggest advantage of my unique neighborhood, besides living on a block with more than two different floor-plans, was my backyard.

It wasn’t sprawling, but it was far larger than most of the yards in town and combined with my neighbor’s yard it was all the room we needed. As you can imagine, our yards were designed to be plain old yards and not Camden Yard, so we needed some creativity in creating a field.

A tree, a Frisbee (sometimes a shirt or extra glove) and a corner of my patio served as first, second and third bases respectively. My neighbor’s chimney stood as a towering, brick foul pole. A patio and plastic chairs were our bleachers. Trees, a cable box and a barbecue grill all served as phantom fences at one point or another. A dirt spot at the end of the yard worn well down by the treads of countless pairs of sneakers represented home plate and both batters’ boxes.

A creative, makeshift field also called for some creative, makeshift rules. To an outsider looking in, our game was most assuredly baseball…of some sort. However, it wasn’t the kind you see on TV or even the kind seen on a high school or college field. It was very own brand of ball.

We played fast pitch with a tennis ball (somewhat of a relief to my mom and her windows). We hurled from a short mound, although I don’t think anyone ever officially measured it. Since games were usually two or three to a side, they were seven innings with two outs per half inning. Naturally, since we didn’t have enough people to field a first baseman, ground balls were pitcher’s hand.

Balls hit out of my yard to the right were automatic outs. We tried playing them as ground rule doubles for a while, but it just prolonged games exponentially. And we were playing baseball not Cricket. Any ball off the back of my house or off my roof was a foul ball. With an out waiting on most of one side of the field and a foul ball on most of the other, we were in a Polo Grounds type of situation. The only difference is, at the Polo Grounds you didn’t have to hit the ball to center field.

It might be hard to believe, but those are just the basics. We developed many more convoluted rules over the years, but I won’t bore you with them because there was more to the game than goofy rules and an improvised field.

It was about spending summer days and nights doing something we all loved but doing it for us. We weren’t playing to make the playoffs. We weren’t playing for any coaches. We didn’t have to listen to any umpires. The games we played were ours, which, I guess, was aided by the fact that we were the only people that could understand the subtleties of the game.

Our games, in some ways, also allowed us all to act out fantasies of playing in big leagues. There were homers, late-game rallies, pitching duels, diving catches, brush-back pitches and even the occasional brawl. Suddenly, those things were not confined to colossal stadiums scattered in the nation’s largest cities. They were in my backyard.

More importantly, it was a good way to spend a few hours with friends. Sure, we played video games together and went to movies, too. But it was the competitiveness and jawing at each other that made for the most memorable moments.

For there is no greater feeling than taking one of your best friends deep after he proclaimed you would be sitting down in two pitches.

Of that, I am sure.

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