Baseball and purism, yesterday and today

By Dave Kirkpatrick

Everyone called him Sampson.

“This guy’s forearms look like cannons and his fastball will probably rip me in two the way I coward out on inside pitches,” I said to myself.

His warm-up pitches scared the hell out of me. “I have to face this guy?” I asked myself as I hoped for the first time to actually be lifted for a pinch hitter.

I nervously approached the plate. I tried to be cool by tapping my cleats even though it was 85 degrees and hadn’t rained in weeks. The only thing that came off was a weak puff of dust—just what I imagined myself turning into after Sampson was through with me.

e was massive for his age. As a 10-year-old, he towered over the rest of us mighty mites.

As he paved his way toward the mound, the crowd whispered in amazement, his coach tugged proudly and confidentally at his belt and I shivered in my nylon Spalding spikes.

I struck out three times that day. Sampson got the best of me. I had sunk as low as a Little Leaguer could ever imagine sinking. Not even a foul tip did my bat bless me with. I didn’t as much as graze the white sphere (that I grew to hate because of its elusiveness) when it neared my Louisville Slugger.

This memory, albeit not my moment of glory, came to me last week as I walked through a field that used to be the park in which I played Little League as a lad.

All that remained were two concrete slabs where the equipment shed and concession stand once stood—monuments to a fallen landmark.

My days of athletic excellence came and went without me knowing. I never really grasped the idea of intensity and killer instinct needed to be a top-notch Little Leaguer, but boy did I have fun.

I remember riding my makeshift dirt bike, which used to resemble one of those ugly banana bikes, to the park, dumping it on the move in a pile where my buddies had dumped their hot rods and sprinting to the field for the day’s game.

Lions Field was a real Little League field.

The fields were green and the grass was always cut to perfection. The infield was made of dirt, not sand, which made it much easier on the thighs and helped us inexperienced players avoid the menace of “strawberries.”

The dug-outs were real dug-outs. You walked down steps into the concrete cavern and watched the game through squares in the fencing. We spit Big Mouth gum juice, talked strategy that we knew little about and chanted the ever-famous “Hey batter batter! Hey batter batter! Swing!”

The outfield fences were real outfield fences. Painted on the wooden fences in bright colors were the names of all the sponsors who had donated to the league. The entire structure shook when some unknowing outfielder collided with it while chasing a home run thump.

The place was alive with natural excitement and tradition. This place was my big leagues. This was the place for a kid to hang out.

Now, when I sit amidst the new steel-fenced, generic excuse for a ball park that we have in my home town, I feel like some of the tradition in Little League baseball is waning.

Sure things change, but does something that used to be so simple and fun have to become another casualty to progress?

We are seeing much of the fun in professional baseball disappear. Whether it be personal trash about a player like Wade Boggs, drug abuse or skyrocketing ticket prices, the game is not as simple as it used to be.

Major league ball is a financial institution nourished by big money. Big organizations suffer from big-money problems.

Little League baseball is another financial institution nourished by big money, and it also has its fair share of big- money problems.

We probably won’t hear about a 10-year-old Wade Boggs chasing skirts anytime soon, but the problems associated with keeping an international organization like Little League simple during times of restricted budgets and confusing values is a battle I hope those in charge of our national pastime can win.