Thursday, July 14, 2005

Livin' what I write

For much of my life I’ve been intimately involved in one form of local baseball, or another. From my earliest experiences that I recall at the age of seven, going to Roberts 88’ers games, Lisbon Fall’s town team representative in the local Andy County League, baseball played a key role in forming a sense of who I am. Later, I played Little League, Senior Little League, High School ball and eventually, American Legion baseball. After a college career cut short by injury, I walked away from baseball in my early 20’s, only to return to the altar of the local game, with the birth of my own son.

Weaving its seemingly timeless thread around the relationship that would develop with my own son, baseball continues to occupy a central place for me with each passing summer. It is that thread that prompted me to reflect on the current state of local baseball and Portland’s Twilight League and the genesis of the seed that eventually became When Towns Had Teams.

This summer is my third season of being a head coach. As much as I grouse about my never-ending list of things to do regarding the league, I absolutely love to coach—always have. There’s something about pulling aside a 20-year-old pitcher and recommending some minor adjustment and seeing a light of understanding come on and observing him begin to have success. Or witnessing the personal development of players who you watched as skinny 15 year olds, blossom into 20 year old young men who you know are going to be successful as human beings. In a world where heroes and leaders are in short supply, trying to model respect for the game of baseball and being a mentor isn’t unimportant, even if I come up short of perfection more-times-than-not.

Having said all that, I’m concerned about how the brand of baseball I’m so firmly connected with continues to slide down society’s skewered list of priorities. While some of my friends aren’t as passionate about our nation’s pastime as I am, I stand by my frequent assertions that the loss of local baseball (and many other local, citizen-based activities) is not a good sign, and reflects our loss of community and our slide into the murky waters of the banal and boorish.

I could cite example-after-example of how our league (and not just our league but other types of locally-oriented activities) receive short shrift from our so-called local leaders and civic hierarchy, as well as fellow citizens (not to mention Portland's paper-of-record). A case in point was last night’s doubleheader that my club, Patriot Mutual Insurance, playing against Lewiston/Auburn. Due to our rainy summer, the league schedule over the next two weeks is rife with makeup games. Rather than play our usual nine inning single game, beginning at 7pm, we opted to play two seven inning games in order to makeup one of our rainouts with this club. We started a half our earlier than usual, beginning at 6:30pm.

Upon arriving at the St. Joseph’s College field in North Windham, we were told that we had to be off the field by 11pm. This meant that if both games had excessive hitting or other things that can prolong an amateur baseball game, we might be hindered by the clock. As it happened, we were done long before our imposed curfew, but once again, I looked into the face of a society that stumbles more-and-more into its “me-only” ghetto of self-absorption. When I asked the groundskeeper in charge as to why we had to be off the field, he told me that “the neighbors call the cops” if games go beyond that time. Call the cops? Give me a freakin’ break! This made me reflect on several things:

--With no houses within a half mile of the field, how does an evening baseball game between 30 college-age kids imperil their television programs, or their apparent need for peace and serenity?

--There was a time when folks in the community would have come out to watch local players play, rather than treat it as an impositition. What’s gone so wrong that they now resort to calling the police about the crack of leather on wood?

--Since when did the participation of members of the community in an All-American pastime as baseball warrant the involvement of local law enforcement?

I could certainly go on with this, but I think you get the picture. All of this forcefully validates the work that I’ve spent the last year doing—collecting the facts, stories and tracing local baseball’s rise to prominence and subsequent downward plunge into being associated with a criminal activity.

While sociologists might disagree with my assignment of town team baseball’s demise as a cause of social pathology, I think it’s a pretty good mirror to hold up for all of us to look into and ask, “Where the f*ck did we take the wrong turn?” In 30 years, we’ve gone from town team and semi-pro baseball being revered, attended by hundreds and yes, thousands of fans, to now running the risk of arrest and legal penalty for exceeding arbitrary curfews of short-sighted cranks.

I’m not sure where this will all end up. Maybe in the next three or four years, baseball leagues like the Twilight League will finally reach their endpoint—in my humble opinion, we’ve certainly reached our nadir. Then, we’ll only have the overpaid and narcissistic professionals to follow on our wide-screen televisions, brought to you by Nike, Wal-Mart and our other corporate raiders that run the show here in our plutocracy that we call America.


Listmaker said...

Interesting post. I really don't know much about the history of what you are talking about - I look forward to reading your book. But do you think that minor league baseball has filled in some of the gaps here as far as people attending games? Who really cares about local kids playing ball when you can get a bobblehead and see the Zooperstars?

weasel said...

"When I asked the groundskeeper in charge as to why we had to be off the field, he told me that “the neighbors call the cops” ": this for me has always been one of the downsides of life in modern Maine. It might be less tolerant locals or the influx of folks from away but the first concern these days it seems is the holy preservation of "quiet", even in bustling little towns like Bar Harbor. Indeed, I was at the Camden relay for life all night walk recently (held at the rural and remote high school track) and the police were called by some anonymous neighbor to tell us to turn the music off as "it was carrying on the wind."

And as for Listmaker's point, minor league can fill the gap in some places, but we only have one minor league team in a state as large as the rest of New England put together. Besides, up here there's a good chance we are going to know one or two players on a high school, college, American Legion or whatever team, unlike the minors players who are just itching to get the heck out of Dodge.

Jim said...

I'm not as big a fan of professional sports as I once was. So much of sports today is filled with hype, excessive marketing and never-ending merchandising--the kind of things I deplore about much of what America has become--just one big commercial for some product that none of us really needs.

Many of these "local kids" will settle in the area, or elsewhere and be doctors, teachers, coaches and contribute to their communities.

Too many of today's professional players have become mercenaries, selling their talent to the highest bidder.

There are a couple of interesting studies that show that despite the local politician's claims of the boon that professional sports franchises bring to communities that build stadiums, they are actually an economic drain.

Listmaker--there's got to be a league in NYC or nearby where college kids play in the summer. You should head out and check out a game and report on it; include a few photos. You might be surprised at how good the level of play actually is.

I don't want to get into a debate about what's better regarding baseball. My book stands on its own; a historical record of a time when towns had teams and arguably, a better time for many of the small communities represented.

Listmaker said...


i am all for amateur baseball. i've been to a few games here and there, i was just being overly sarcastic to the point that it might have seemed like i was being serious. i completely agree with your point.

Jim said...

It's hard for me not to come off as a "crank" or "curmudgeon" when I rip professional sports. It's not the game itself that I have issues with--it's the corporate manipulation of the game--like so many other areas of our lives.

I don't want to be overly nostalgic, falling into the trap with others of glossing over many of the issues from our past.

I make the case that we have lost something in our communities, culture and social contracts that seemed to be in abundance merely 30 to 40 years ago.

Pro sports didn't kill town team baseball, it merely is the result of what Robert Putnam (in Bowling Alone)terms, "social capital".

I'm honored to have fellow bloggers Listmaker and Wisdom Weasel on board with When Towns Had Teams. It's always gratifying that your colleagues (writers and bloggers) want to read what you write and publish.

Jim said...

Jim wrote:

Pro sports didn't kill town team baseball, it merely is the result of what Robert Putnam (in Bowling Alone)terms, "social capital".

Obvious typo and shows my haste in posting w/out properly checking the accuracy of what I write.

What I meant to say was this:

Pro sports didn't kill town team baseball by itself. The loss of teams and the culture of local baseball does illustrate the loss of what Robert Putnam refers to as "social capital" (in Bowling Alone)in our communities.

The loss of this can't be laid entirely at the feet of pro sports, as there are multiple reasons for the demise of said social capital epitomized by things like town team baseball, as well as other community mainstays from the past.