Want to save baseball? Bring back the sandlot

As little boys swing their bats for the final time this season and park leagues go dormant for the summer, there’s been a great deal of talk about how baseball is literally dying in the womb. Kids just aren’t playing the sport as much as they use to. 
Sportswriters are busy casting blame. “Baseball is struggling to hook kids — and risks losing fans to other sports,” declared one headline in the Washington Post while another in that newspaper read, “Stealing home: How travel teams are eroding community baseball.”
Others sports are to blame? Strike one. There have always been other sports competing with our national past time (especially in Alabama). Besides, data from the National Sporting Goods Association show that participation in all sports is declining.  
Travel teams are to blame? Contact, but it’s a foul ball. While specialization from an early age means fewer kids are playing multiple sports, elite players have always been recruited into private clubs. A few decades ago every sawmill and textile mill in the South would field teams comprised of the best high school and park league players around.
Still, there’s no arguing with the facts. In a recent Wall Street Journal article headlined “Why Children Are Abandoning Baseball,” sports reporter Brian Costa cited additional data from the National Sporting Goods Association that indicated a 41-percent drop from 2002 to 2013 in the number of baseball players between the ages of 7 and 17. 
You’re killing me, Smalls. That’s terrible news. Baseball is the one sport in America where a kid can competitively play without being a hulk or a speedster (football), a giant (basketball), or have to cheer for a championship team in Europe (soccer). 
The precipitous drop has Major League Baseball worried. 
“The biggest predictor of fan avidity as an adult is whether you played the game,” MLB commissioner Rob Manfred told Costa. An MLB spokesman added that a recent study showed that “fans between the ages of 12 and 17 cited participation as a major factor more often than watching or attending the sport.”
So what’s the reason for the decline? 
A few years ago Gene Sapakoff, a writer for the Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina, came close to the answer. “Remember when we were kids?” he asked, “Ah, yes, those endless days of football, baseball, basketball — whatever the season. Choosing up sides. No coach. Shirts and skins. No camps. Arguments solved without an umpire. No overly organized “programs” run by intrusive adults.”
So, the demise of the sandlot is to blame? Folks, he just hit a stand up triple. 
Sure, many kids are automatically attracted to baseball through family tradition, but back in my youth a great deal more discovered their love of the game by playing on our neighborhood sandlot. We may have never worn real uniforms, but we certainly thought we were playing real baseball. 
But take a look around your community. How many neighborhood baseball fields do you even see? I didn’t realize it was a problem until after my son’s park season wrapped up and we looked around for a diamond for his friends to play some pick-up games over the summer. 
Nothing was within walking or biking distance, and I found that most public parks around town lack even the simplest baseball backstop or space for a few throw-down bases. The middle school and high school fields are kept behind locked fences; try to play there and you’ll likely be run off by the cops. I learned that we have to pay to use the city’s baseball fields and trade unanswered emails with a scheduler, and in addition to that the county’s park requires you to carry team insurance. Goodness. 
Thankfully after a persistent search I found one elementary school whose principal welcomed the boys to use their small diamond as long as a parent sticks around. Fair enough, at least they’ll get to play baseball for real this summer rather than on Nintendo.  

Meanwhile, as MLB tries to figure out how to solve its problem, baseball fans should take matters into their own hands and encourage cities to bring back the simple neighborhood sandlot. But if they don’t, just remember, there’s no crying in baseball.