With the World Cup upon us, it reminds me of when I was a kid in Queens, NY, and soccer did not exist.
Yeah, I know–all the kids today play soccer and lacrosse. But when I was growing up in the 60’s, I’m not even sure we had heard of soccer, and I think lacrosse got a mention in an American history book as a game Native Americans (who were Indians when I was in school) played. No one I knew–absolutely no one–played those games.
We played three sports: baseball, football and basketball. We knew about ice hockey, but we didn’t play it, because it required things that weren’t readily available, like ice. And we didn’t belong to any private clubs, so we didn’t play golf or tennis because there was no place to play them. Sometimes we played paddleball with wooden rackets on a handball court.
With the exception of Little League baseball, which was limited to three months from April to June, none of our sports was organized. There were no adults involved in any way. There were no travel teams, no tournaments, no “drafts,” no car pools. If you couldn’t get there by bicycle, you couldn’t play there.
Our sports were very adaptable. You could adjust baseball for any number of players. Only seven on a side? No hitting to right. Only six? Hitting team provides the catcher. A variation of baseball could be played with as few as two people, provided you had access to a schoolyard with a wall, a broomstick, some chalk and a Spalding or Pennsy Pinkie, which were hollow pink rubber balls. You could press them in with your fingers to create all sort of weird curves when you pitched them. You’d draw a strike zone on the wall, and hits were determined by how far you could smack a crazily spinning ball with a stick. Occasionally you’d hit one onto the roof of the school, and the other person would say “Nice shot,” and then you’d go home, because you only had the one ball.
Football was versatile, too. You could play with only three people, as long as one of them was willing to be “official quarterback” and swore to be an unbiased passer to the competing receivers who were running in and out between parked cars on the street.
But we’d have real games, too. A few phone calls could get a pick-up team from down Conduit Avenue on the Brooklyn side of the border to show up for a game of hardball at one of the fields that was otherwise abandoned for the summer. We’d have double and even triple headers, playing until it got dark or until too many of us had to be home for dinner.
Until we all dispersed for college, we had a standing no-equipment tackle football game on Sunday mornings. We played on a stretch of grass below Cross Bay Boulevard, with cars whizzing by just beyond the sideline. Yes, you are correct: we were idiots. I’m sure those games planted the seeds for many future knee replacement surgeries.
We policed our own games. There were no umpires, no referees. In baseball, someone from the team that was up would stand behind the pitcher calling balls and strikes, mostly with an amazing degree of fairness. You’d actually see kids arguing with their own teammates about blown calls. In basketball, the players would just yell out when there was a foul. We only recognized two indiscretions anyway: walking, which was when someone forgot to dribble, and “hacking,” which was when someone forgot it was a no-contact sport.
But those days are gone. I get it. Everything now is organized, scheduled, and fully equipped. Lacrosse and soccer are as American as maize and shepherds pie. But I’ve never played them and I still can’t watch them. To me, those two sports, as well as hockey and even, to some extent, professional basketball, are all variations on a theme: a bunch of people moving to and fro between two goals. Each one provides its players with a limitation: you have to bounce the ball; you have to play on a slippery surface; you have to use these basket thingies; you can’t use your hands. Otherwise, they seem like the same games: back and forth, back and forth.
Sure, a viewer can appreciate the athleticism of basketball, the graceful footwork of soccer, the stamina of lacrosse, and the Canadian accents of hockey. But there’s no time for strategizing, no pauses when a fan can yell in a play to the coach or manager, no breaks for animated discussions about the DH or the wildcat or just how horrible a particular player is.
In other words, there is no room for audience participation, which is pretty much the only type of participation I can handle these days.
I know that the pace of baseball and football is sometimes criticized. Yes, it’s true that you can watch an entire DVR’d sitcom in less time than it takes to play one half inning, and when an NFL game reaches the two minute warning, you likely still have time to get a pizza delivered before it’s over..
But there’s thinking involved, damn it. There’s more to it than incredibly fit human beings chasing moving objects and propelling them towards receptacles of some sort.
And I realize that my disdain for lacrosse and soccer puts me in the minority, certainly in the world, and maybe even in the U.S. My nephews grew up playing those sports mostly to the exclusion of baseball, and these days they root fervently for two teams that do not even play in this country. On the other hand, given the kind of brilliant summer day on which we used to play two, they’d just as soon play eighteen.
What’s my point? I’m not sure, really. Maybe I’m against globalization. Maybe I’m against progress. Maybe I’m against modern childhood. Or maybe I’m just against sports that require more coordination than I ever had.
See you soon.