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Mar. 29 2010 - 12:23 am | 215 views | 0 recommendations | 3 comments

‘Sandlot Day,’ or how adults organizing unorganized sports can’t see irony

There’s something pathetic about the idea of “Sandlot Day 2010,” pushed by the SUNY Youth Sports Institute as a chance “to give young ballplayers in organized leagues the gift of pickup baseball that their coaches and parents experienced.”

There was a “Sandlot 3?” I didn’t even know there was a “Sandlot 2.”

What’s pathetic is not that it takes an organized effort to create unorganized play, although that’s pretty bad. What’s pathetic is the false nostalgia being pushed by this idea — that the glory days of youth sports were when kids did everything themselves while adults stayed inside, smoked, played bridge and fucked the neighbor’s spouse. Well, the SUNY Youth Sports Institute (and by extension, the New York Times, which wrote a kind piece about Sandlot Day) didn’t exactly push that last clause as part of its gauzy look at days gone by.

As a member of a generation in which, while we had organized sport, I played a lot of pickup games around the neighborhood, too, presumably I should be totally on board with the idea of “Sandlot Day.” After all, who can be against:

From this one day they’ll get personal memories that last a lifetime, a sense of ownership of the game, an ability to organize themselves, and so much more.

Most of our children’s playtime is organized. When a sport can offer its players a gift like Sandlot Day, it tells the players you trust them in control of the game, and it ultimately increases their passion for the game.

As coaches, you know this day is about something bigger than baseball. At first, the value of Sandlot Day may not be clear to parents. After all, they have come to expect organized games with uniforms, umpires, coaches instructing and parents cheering. But you know that to keep kids playing baseball longer they need a passion for the game.

A large part of the passion for baseball can be found in the historic roots of what occurs when playing in small games in the sandlot, playground, or backyard. Through Sandlot Day, baseball has a great opportunity give just one day back to the origins of the game.

Yes, who can be against this? [Points thumbs toward self] This guy!

The first problem is that adults are organizing this. Sandlot Day is not kids truly organizing sports on their own, picking the date, time, place and rosters. It’s organized leagues providing specific places and times, with players pre-supplied. The idea is coming from adults, not children.

This presupposes that the problem is children are incapable of organizing their own play, their abilities atrophied by years of organized sport. Actually, that’s not the case. I bet these same kids can find ways to organize video-game playing with friends, how they all interact at a school dance, or, at some point in their life, a game of tag at recess. The idea also presupposes that kids pine for the ability to organize games on their own, when in most cases, at least in my experience, they’re perfectly happy with an organized league, especially if they get a uniform out of it.

The other major problem is the whole idea that intrinsically kid-organized play is always better than adult-organized play. No doubt, adult-organized play has, shall we say, its flaws. But here are things you get in kid-organized play that aren’t so pleasant, and a few speak to how dickish children can get:

– Not having enough kids to play.

– “You’re too young! Get out of here!”

– Endless fights over the rules.

– Endless fights over calls.

– “I’m taking my ball and going home!”

– “If you score from second, I’m gonna knife you.” (This happened to me in eighth grade. I scored, and avoided the knife.)

– Bigger kids who steal your stuff.

– Game called on account of dinner time.

– “I’m the quarterback, because I’m always the quarterback.”

– Game called on account of the ball going into the crochety neighbor’s yard.

– Game called on account of smashed window.

– Game called on account of teammate getting hit by a car while chasing a ball.

– Getting picked last.

– Not getting picked at all.

I would recommend that to make a real Sandlot Day, the adult organizers throw in some of those traits into the official unorganized day. That way, when the kids come back to organized sports, the screaming parents and asshole coaches don’t seem so bad anymore.


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    Hi Bob,

    I agree that it’s sad that adults need to organize “pickup” games. But maybe one day per season will jumpstart some kids to think creatively about their own free time. The goal, of course, is that the kids themselves should organize neighborhood pickup games–recruiting other kids, managing their games, and most importantly, deciding what kind of games they want to play and enjoy.

    As to your colorful nostaglia rant, it sounds like your neighborhood was a lot tougher than mine! Knives in my Wonder Years suburban development were more likely pen knives carried to look cool or used to whittle wood. Sure there were bad moments including intimidation and bullying. But learning how to deal with others on your own is part of life and probably beneficial (unless someone is threatening to knife you if you come home from second).

    One of the characteristics of my neighborhood pickup games, was that they came in different forms. We would have 2-on-2 or 3-on-3 backyard games with friends, larger games with older/younger kids, and ones at the local elementary school between different neighborhoods. If there was some asshole who had it out for you, than you might simply choose not to play. And because kids were often needed to make the game happen, you would often have someone rally to your defense. Jerks (sometimes brothers) who argued over everything and destroyed the game were shunned.

    Like you, we had both pickup games and organized sports. They were balanced. One organized sport per season with plenty of time for pickup games. Even back then, parents could get out of the house to participate in the organized youth sports experience. They could go outside after dinner and play catch with their son or daughter, as my dad did with me. You’re probably right that kids are now finding other ways to learn and practice the non-sports benefits that we derived from our neighborhood pickup games. But I doubt that video game get-togethers offer the same health benefits.

    Adult-run organized sports are what they are. I think it’s generally a mistake for organized sports programs to carve out time for self-directed play, or otherwise be the end all for a child’s experience in sports. Instead, let’s focus on restoring the balance between organized sports and neighborhood pickup games. Let’s try to find and promote opportunities for the kids themselves to organize and manage their own pickup games–whether it be in backyards, playgrounds, or at the local YMCA. For anyone interested, I discuss this topic more in The Role of Organized Sports in Your Child’s Life, an article that can be found at http://www.insideyouthsports.org .

  2. collapse expand

    Jeff: Thanks for your comments. Believe it or not, I lived mostly in pretty safe neighborhoods. I think the kid with a knife was just trying to be a toughguy, although I remember him delivering his threat in a tone that made it seem like he was serious.

    My kids are fortunate enough to have the opportunity to organize their own play in their own neighborhood, although they have something fairly unique these days. That is, a neighborhood full of children, with houses close to each other but enough space (and nearby park space a short walk away) to do something, and a safe enough neighborhood that people can go place to place without parents freaking out.

    I think you can’t underestimate suburban sprawl if you want to point a finger of blame at why you see less “unorganized” sports. If kids aren’t living together in a compact area, it’s hard to get enough of them to play anything.

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    About Me

    A youth sports blog written by Bob Cook. He contributes to NBCSports.com, or MSNBC.com, if you prefer. He’s delivered sports commentaries for All Things Considered. For three years he wrote the weekly “Kick Out the Sports!” column for Flak Magazine.

    Most importantly for this blog, Bob is a father of four who is in the throes of being a sports parent and youth coach in an inner-ring suburb of Chicago. He reserves the right to change names to protect the innocent and the extremely, extremely guilty.

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