FAMILY- Sayonara, sandlot: Pick-up games nowhere to be found

In recent years, the virtual disappearance of sandlot baseball– the informal, localized version of our national pastime– has come to symbolize the challenges facing the current generation of American youth.  

In charting the causes behind this trend, two schools of thought have emerged. According to some critics, the sandlot has no place in the life of today's hyper-organized, overcommitted, precociously ambitious child. Instead of the pick-up game, kids now compete on elite traveling teams, vying for a handful of college scholarships, and ultimately, a shot at the big leagues.    

On the other hand, there are those who blame the kids themselves. Seduced by computers, video games, and television, today's youth are allegedly inseparable from the air-conditioned, technological paradise that is the modern home.

There is, however, a much simpler explanation for the decline of sandlot baseball: the sandlots themselves have disappeared.

Armed with a dozen balls, a pair of worn gloves, and an aluminum bat, three of my friends and I– all graduate students at the University of Virginia– recently set out to play a weekend game of home-run derby in Charlottesville. Yet what began as a simple outing soon turned into a seemingly never-ending and near-futile search for a place to play America's game.

Driving first to two of the area's largest parks– McIntire and Darden Towe– we found the fields monopolized by squads of adult soft-ballers. It appeared that the sandlot players of yesteryear, too, had given into the organizational impulse driving modern sport, dispensing with informal play in favor of league competition. Discouraged but heartened by the knowledge that we remained true to a purer form of the game, we continued on our journey.

We found a groundskeeper busily at work on Charlottesville High School's baseball diamond, and we would have quickly driven our limited cache of balls into the woods behind the softball field, where only 240 feet separate home plate and the outfield fence. 

Growing increasingly cranky on a scorching hot, viciously humid Saturday afternoon, we drove towards the University of Virginia, reasoning that use of the athletic facilities might be one of the few perks that come with being a graduate student. Much to our chagrin, we found those perfectly manicured parks overrun by legions of adolescent soccer players participating in the University's four-day-long "Soccer Camp of Champions." According to the program's website, the camp offers an "intensive, accelerated program" that comes "highly recommended to players considering a college soccer career." As evidenced by the age range at the camp, such considerations now apparently become relevant as early as age 10.

Here, then, were the makings of a climactic showdown, a battle that would feature the great dilemmas of youth and sport in microcosm: a quartet of wannabe Hank Aarons– the sandlot gang of the last generation– versus today's over-scheduled, hyper-competitive youth; the quintessentially American sport versus that foreign interloper, soccer; the studied amateurism of the pick-up game versus the pre-professionalism of the summer development camp.

In the end, it was not much of a fight. Finding an open diamond, we had not yet reached home plate before camp officials dispatched one of their minions in a motorized utility cart to shoo us away.  The soccer players, it seemed, would soon require the use of that field as well.  Faced with the prospect of defying several hundred cleat-clad boys and their adult coaches, we skulked back to the car.

Our spirits ebbing, we drove back to our apartment, but then Scott—the original instigator of our ill-fated outing, and perhaps the greatest power hitter to ever inhabit our apartment—insisted that we drive to the nearby county high school. Miraculously, the lush varsity field was unoccupied, albeit surrounded by a high chain-link fence. At that point, however, crawling through the dust under a locked gate seemed like a trivial obstacle. We had found our sandlot.

Still, this is hardly a story of triumph. It had taken us over an hour to find our field of dreams.  Our quest had required patience, fortitude, and a willingness to grovel in the dirt– not to mention a car.  No wonder kids these days join traveling teams, or else stay at home. For children without a formal league, team, or camp, the sandlot is now off limits. At least the "organization kids," as one journalist has labeled the current generation of young people, are guaranteed a place to play. 

Christopher Loomis is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Virginia.#