For the past seven weeks, a group of kids (ages 6-8) met at a local elementary school in Montgomery County, MD at 10:00am with baseball on their minds. They didn’t show up with helmets, or uniforms or bats. They came with just their gloves and a desire to play baseball. For the first 30 minutes I took them through skill work: agilities, proper throwing mechanics, approaching a groundball, etc. After skill work, the kids were divided into two teams. Usually we had enough for 5 on 5. Each team set their own lineup and came up with their team name. Once teams were set, I pulled one kid from each team to decide which team would be visitors. We did it the old fashioned way. A bat was thrown in the air, and after one kid caught it, they did “hand-over-hand” to see who got to choose visitor and home team.
The ball of choice was a tennis ball. For bats, kids had the option of using a corked whiffle bat (stuffed with newspapers) or a sawed-off broomstick handle. Most opted for the broomstick handle since it offered the most pop. We used a piece of plywood that acted as a catcher. With duct tape, we mapped out the strike zone. Any pitch taken that hit the zone was a strike. And because of the age group, I pitched (goal for next year is to have the kids pitch).
Because we didn’t have enough players to field a proper lineup on each side, we improvised like kids did years ago when playing sandlot or stickball. We played without a first-baseman so we utilized pitcher’s poison on ground balls fielded by infielders. During a 3 on 4 game, we had to use ghost runners, which the kids loved and created many questions. And some of the kids’ fathers even played OF. Not sure who had more fun, the kids or their fathers. And the dads, including myself took it just as serious as the kids. We didn’t let balls drop just to let the kids get a hit so they could “feel good.” Heck, there was one dad that was diving for balls! It was great for the kids to see their dads having so much fun.
Games were very competitive. The kids, on each side, took winning seriously. And I did not discourage that. If anything, I fed into their intensity. I tried to coach as little as possible. My preference was to discuss situations after the game. But, there were times when I felt a break was needed and took a few minutes to go over some situations during the games. But, my objective was to let them play.
Running the program cost very little. To rent the community field for 7 weeks cost about $100 total. Other expenses included the broomstick handle (couldn’t convince my wife to use one from the house!); whiffle bats; plywood for the strike zone; and water each week for the kids. So, maybe a grand total of $150. Not a bad price for seeing a bunch of kids enjoy the game. I did charge for the 30-minute skill work; but the game was free. Kids could simply show up when the game started and there was no fee.
When I put the program together, admittedly I did so for a selfish reason. My 7 year-old is an only child (but that will change in February 2017!). Over the past year his love of baseball has grown much quicker than I could have anticipated. So, I wanted to organize the Standlot stickball games as a way that he can continue to play; but in a way that I used to play with my brothers when I was young.
But a few minutes into the first session, I realized that this program is one that I MUST continue next year. And it needs to grow. Many of the kids that participated were kids that I coached in the Spring. I noticed they played a lot looser, and enjoyed the game more than in the Spring. Since our last Sandlot game, we’ve started the Fall season, and I’ve noticed that their enjoyment of the game has carried over from the Sandlot to their practices. If seven weeks of Sandlot ball can have that effect on a dozen kids, why not try to do the same on a larger scale?
When kids only play organized baseball (Travel, Little League, Cal Ripken, etc), they do so because they have to. Their parents signed them up and they need to adhere to the practice and game schedule. Of course they can quit, but I’m sure their parents will say “let’s finish the season and if you still don’t enjoy it, you don’t have to play next year.” However, with our program, every week was optional. When kids showed up, they did so because they were playing mostly on their terms. Their team, their lineup, they decide which positions they would play. They showed up because THEY WANTED TO PLAY BASEBALL. And not because they had to. There was no cost to play in the game so their parents didn’t have a financial investment. It was great. Everyone that showed up did so because they wanted to show up.
I don’t expect today’s youth to organize their own Sandlot games. Maybe its because they play on too many teams and don’t have time, and are just tired of baseball. Maybe they just don’t love the game enough. Maybe its that the parents are scared to let their kids go to the park on their own. Whatever the reason, you simply don’t see kids playing in parks anymore. So, a parent, or a coach will need to organize games. And that’s ok. Whatever it takes to get the kids outside and playing the game. Show up with a ball and bat and say “Now go play.” I guarantee you that they’ll make it work. And I guarantee you that they’ll come to you and say, “Can we do this again.” We don’t want to force the kids to play. Rather, we should guide them. Provide them with the understanding of something they just don’t know. Once we show them how much fun they can have playing the game, the chances of them carrying this newfound passion to their organized teams will greatly increase.
Do your kids a favor next summer. Organize at least 8 kids to meet at a local field. Bring a broomstick handle or whiffle bat and a tennis ball. And just let them play. And see what happens. I’m sure it won’t be the last time they do it during the summer. No cost to you, and isn’t it better than having them sit inside playing video games?!