Youth baseball

Last time, this column examined the skateboarding scene in Ithaca. The city built the first municipal skate park in central New York more than 20 years ago.

Part of the park is built over what used to be baseball fields, demonstrating concretely the development of skateboarding (non-existent before the 1940s and largely unheralded until the ‘60s) and decline of the 150-year-old national pastime.

Yet one finds exceptions in unexpected places. Last week I was speaking with a local family of some friendly acquaintance. The parents are not of this country originally. They have a son about age 7.

The day we were speaking, the boy was wearing a football t-shirt. I asked if he liked football. He hesitated and shrugged the way thoughtful children will when they have something to say, but are unsure of the process and their willingness to engage in it with someone they don’t know very well. “Or any sport?” I asked.

He nodded and smiled. “I like baseball,” he said.

I suppose I was less surprised than if he had said “water polo,” but not much. If I’d had to bet, I would have guessed soccer, which is played almost everywhere in the world, while baseball is played hardly anywhere.

“Really?” I said. “Me too. I can switch-hit,” I said, pantomiming it, avid to go on a bit longer (his parents were smiling).

“You can?” he exclaimed with an enthusiasm that was either simply genuine or artfully contrived.

“Yes,” I said, “but not very well,” and he giggled.

Maybe baseball’s status as a team sport, thus providing camaraderie, combined with its inherent simplicity appeals to children.

Soccer is fairly straightforward, but there’s a lot of running, which can be distracting to kids. I once coached soccer to very young kids and would emphasize the importance of running in the direction of the ball. Often the path was toward a friend on the other team, to lock arms and spin around.

Football and basketball are rather complex to master. There’s a lot of strategy and movement of bodies and the ball.

Baseball has only sporadic action, and it’s quite linear. The ball goes from the pitcher to the batter to a fielder. The action, such as it is, is easy to follow.

In soccer, football, basketball and hockey, players speed around trying to be the one to get the ball (or puck) and score. Baseball is unique, one might say quizzical, as the only sport where the team that doesn’t have the ball scores the points.

Baseball is not just linear but deliberate, i.e. slow, which makes it a poor fit for television, thus mass media audiences. The speed, grace and action (and occasional violence) of the other sports make them perfect for a visual medium with dozens of camera angles and slow motion and replay capacities for seeing the action you couldn’t follow when it actually happened. That suitability has rendered football, especially, with its more than occasional violence, far more popular than baseball.

But baseball is good for conversing, which can be nice between people. One never knows where talking might lead and delight might occur.

A few times each season I go to games in Binghamton and Syracuse, which each have a minor league team affiliated with the major league New York Mets. The games are well played and entertaining. The ballparks are clean and comfortable. The crowds are pleasant. Admission costs about the same as a movie. It’s outside. It’s a great place for casual outings with family and friends.

A few years ago I was meeting a friend from Ithaca at a game in Binghamton. He was bringing his 5-year-old son, who had never been to a game. They got there early.

When I met them at our seats, the son was straining a little as adult greetings passed. After a well-mannered number of minutes he touched his father’s arm. “Papa, can we go find the mascot?” he said.

Oversized mascots are a big entertainment feature of ball games these days, especially the striving minor leagues. In Binghamton the mascot is a big-headed horse with a perpetual smile and a certain zest for social interaction.

I looked at my friend. “He knows the word ‘mascot’?” I asked.

“He does now,” he said.

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