posted by Joe Anaya on March 5th, 2012

If I were a kid today, I would be the king of the neighborhood team because the middle-class of athletes is vanishing. Nowadays, any six-year old who smiles when they throw a ball is instantly thrust into a Soviet-era training regimen. They are of course are signed up for little league. If they want to make the school team, they have to be on an all-star team and in little league and they better make the travel squad and play in an off-season league. Same with soccer, basketball, and football. If a kid is interested in two sports, they need to specialize before their voice changes or they’ll be behind the training curve. Which leaves everyone else who has mild to no interest in the sport, with no chance to work their way from the bottom to the middle-class.

When we were young, if a kid liked a sport, they would roam around the neighborhood collecting kids who could “come out and play.” You’d start with the kids who you knew would say, “Yes,” go to the kids you liked next, then if you still needed more (and you almost always needed more) you’d go to the kid who didn’t really like sports, but could probably be talked into playing. That’s usually where I fit in. As a kid, I was often picked last for sports teams. But if I played baseball with the neighborhood kids, they’d play freeze tag with me later. And because they needed everybody they could get to field two teams, they were willing to put up with my shenanigans in left field. But that neighborhood game doesn’t happen any more.

First off, there are very few parents who would allow their grade-schooler to roam the neighborhood unsupervised. The next trick is finding kids with free time. This doesn’t even include the kids who are already at a league event. Mostly they’d be met by phrases like, “I have homework,” or “I have piano practice,” or “I have to go to my sister’s volleyball tournament.” If they could ever find 6 to 10 kids who weren’t over scheduled and whose parents would let them cross streets without a crossing guard, they should abandon baseball that day and instantly go buy a lottery ticket.

In the old days, if it was football season, we played football. If it was basketball season, we played basketball. Everyone from the top athletes to the indoor kids got out and played together. From peer pressure to come outside, I learned to make a lay-up, use a mitt, and run a fly route. I didn’t learn until later that running as fast as I could up the field was just a play to keep me out of the way. But it didn’t’ matter, I was learning. I wasn’t a natural athlete, but I learned the basic rules of all the sports. And because of that, I kept playing and later in life, although not being a first-class athlete, I could join the office softball league, or a pick-up game at the gym or run a fly route on Thanksgiving weekend.

But those opportunities to learn are gone. There’s either the kids on track to join the minor leagues or the kids who never play. There’s no middle ground. And because of that, if you plucked me out of time and dropped me in a field with 10 neighborhood kids, I wouldn’t be picked last. I might even get to be captain.


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