Sandlot Wisdom: Things We Figured Out on Our Own.

Houston East, 1952. (I'm the kid kneeling at left and wearing the Hawaiian shirt.)

Back on the Post World War II Sandlot, we didn’t have the best coaching or equipment in the world. As a matter of fact, we hardly had any coaching at all beyond those things that we picked up from our dads by chance in games of catch in the backyard after our dads’ work was done, but that didn’t happen every day. Our dads in the Houston East End worked long hard blue-collar job hours and they weren’t always home or simply up to playing catch every day that they were there.

Out on the sandlot, of course, we did a lot of “my dad says this” talking with each other. “Get in front of the ball on grounders. If you can’t catch ’em, at least, block ’em with your body” stands out in my memory as the most universal lesson we all picked up as a dad throwaway message. We might never have picked that one up on our own. There was no such thing as a true hop on our Eagle Park field, but we still came around to blocking grounders at the risk of  broken teeth and black eyes. It was the thing to do. Our fathers told us it was.

So, let’s give dads the credit for that first wisdom of the sandlot and then hit upon some of the other things we pretty much figured out on our own by simply playing the game with each other from dawn to dusk during the summers.

Some Wisdom of the Sandlot:

(1)  Get in front of the ball on grounders. If you can’t catch ’em, at least, block ’em with your body. Kids who didn’t block grounders were at risk of being labeled as “dog catchers.” These were fielders who chased hot grounders like dogs chase cars. If they do catch up with the ball, they just run along beside it, barking all the way as the ball clears the lot and rolls on down the street.

(2) In making out a batting order, put the fast little guys who show they can get on base in there ahead of the bigger, slower-moving, but harder-hitting guys.

(3) If you’re pitching, throw strikes. If you can get that first one in there for a strike, you put the batter at a disadvantage that remains with him, unless you give it away by forgetting where the strike zone is located.

(4) If you’re pitching, “accidentally” throw one hard, inside, and wild every now and then. If a wild pitch  makes the batter fall back or down, it becomes easier to throw a strike with your next pitch, especially if you can put it on the outside corner.

(5) As an outfielder, throw the ball ahead of the runner. To learn this one, all we had to do was watch little kids in right field throw ground ball singles to first base, allowing the runner to safely move on to second base in the process. What we didn’t learn on our own in the sandlot is how to effectively set up and use cut-off men on balls hit deep to the outfield. I didn’t learn that one until I played organized ball with an adult coach.

(6) Play the game to win. If you don’t play to win, you may as well not be playing. (Sandlot Yoga would not have been very popular in Pecan Park back in the day. It probably still isn’t.)

(7) If your opponent has an obvious weakness, take advantage of it. This value taught us how to hit to all fields. In fact, Wee Willie Keeler’s credo, “Hit ’em where they ain’t” simply meant to us: “hit ’em where the other team doesn’t have somebody positioned who looks like they can catch or stop a hard-batted ball. And hey, if it looks like nobody out there can catch, go ahead and swing from the heels, Eagles! This is “track-meet-on-the-bases” day!

(8) Never let the other team back in the game because you feel sorry for them. (See Lesson 6 again.) Don’t confuse the absence of mercy with unsportsmanlike behavior. You play the game of baseball to win – or you don’t play the game at all. Good sports understand this creed. Bad sports are the crumb-bums who beg for mercy and then have a tantrum when you beat ’em fair and square.

(9) Always try to find your highest level of competitive ability. If the other players in your world are bigger, better, and older than you, making it impossible for you to compete successfully, there’s nothing wrong with you stepping back and finding your niche with players who are more at your own level. There’s a place for almost everyone who wants to play. I said “almost.” If you can’t play well enough at any level to keep from hurting your team, you can learn to live with it and still enjoy the game as a fan.

(10) Most of all, the sandlot taught us that we’d never figure out the game completely on our own. To understand baseball better, we need to be dedicated to a lifetime of learning about the game’s history, strategies, and techniques.  We still won’t walk away knowing as much about pitching as a Larry Dierker does – or as much about hitting as a Jimmy Wynn, but we will become more knowledgeable – and that just makes the game all the more fun.

If you picked up some special lesson from the sandlot, please post it below as a comment on this article. We’d all like to hear what it was, whether it was a lesson about baseball specifically or life in general.

Have a great week, everybody. Unlesss you’re a Cardinal fan, let’s hope this may be the day that our 2010 Houston Astros start learning something about how to win their first game of the new season.

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3 Responses to “Sandlot Wisdom: Things We Figured Out on Our Own.”

  1. MIKE MULVIHILL Says:

    Our sandlot days were on a makeshift field where Afton Oaks is now. Lot’s of times we played most of the day until our parents came looking for us. We learned to play with lots of electrical taped cracked bats and pretty ragged balls. This made me always very aware of how lucky I was later, in high school and college with the best of equipment.

    I was fortunate to be the youngest, so the be older guys taught me the ropes. Games like workup and playing with only leftfield in play due to lack of players were great fun. Had to really hustle to keep up with the big boys. This really gave me a jump start as it seemed like for a long time I was the squirt.

    It was a great time and lots of fun. Sure didn’t have to worry about being a fatso in those days playing outside all day almost every day. Sports was a great teacher in many ways for me.

    Regards and a great article.
    Mike Mulvihill

  2. Wayne Roberts Says:

    These don’t fall into quite the same category of recollections but your article called them to mind. I played at Westbury Park (Willowbend at Mullins behind Parker Elementary). There was a guy who lived across the street from the park who always came over when we gathered, and to use the vernacular of the day, he was retarded, or from today’s PC world, mentally challenged, take your pick. He was older than us, probably 22-23. I think his name was “Midge” but I won’t swear to that. He wasn’t able to play in our games directly but we let him be bat boy and fetch the ball for us when it went out into the street (which wasn’t dangerous). It always struck me how enthusiastic he was at being allowed to participate. I’m sure those games were a highlight of his days. He was a sweet fellow. I heard years later after going away to college that he’d passed. I was glad we let him in.

    Another guy I remember was also older, perhaps early 20’s, too. Somehow I recollect he’d actually gotten a tryout with some pro team, perhaps the Astros. He didn’t really play with us because he was so much better and we weren’t much use to him given his skill level. However, he’d come around on occasion and show us how far he could yank a ball. We really liked it when he’d hit us fungoes…we couldn’t imagine how high he could whack those things for us to track down.

    There was a place for everyone at Westbury Park those stifling, humid summer days in the 1960’s.

  3. Doug Stewart Says:

    We played what we called Indian Ball with usually 3 or 4 players to a side and the Pitchers hand (glove) was out. We play with a marker limiting us to only hit from LF to Right Center and RF being an out or to only LF if three players. Thus on any grounder if the defense got the ball to the Pitcher before you reached first you were out.

    It tought us to both run out our grounders hard toavoid making an out and to charge the ball on defense to quickly get it back to the Pitcher.

    Viva Cardinals!!!

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