Ground Rules of the Sandlot

Eagle Fiield Now Japonica Park Myrtle @ Japonica Sts. Pecan Park, Houston

Eagle Fiield
Now Japonica Park
Myrtle @ Japonica Sts.
Pecan Park, Houston

 

“Back in the Day” – and for this personal subject – we’re talking 1947 to 1953 for the original Pecan Park Eagles – we had rules too at “Eagle Park” – which the City of Houston over time has renamed. Those hallowed grounds for some of us oldsters are now officially called  “Japonica Park”. They even have an official sign at the place to let the world know their official identity. Sadly for some of us, the little sandlot now has been loaded with toddler playground equipment that would have made our kind of serious baseball play almost impossible, if not for the fact that we were, after all, The Pecan Park Eagles – a most resilient and creative bunch of kids from the Houston East End. We’d have found a way to either play around these obstacles, or else.

Or else? Of course! Things that got in the way in Pecan Park were sometimes known to disappear overnight. I don’t know how, but they just did. I guess it may have had something to do with the fact that anything inorganic that was put together in the first place with a screw – could be unscrewed. And allow me to make it clear here – just in case the word “inorganic” didn’t work as a clue – we are talking about things disappearing here – not people. People disappeared  too, but they vanished by a wholly different set of rules and realities governing that kind of sudden loss. And none of us had anything to do with that kind of much rarer disappearance.

Anyway, the “Eagle Park” sandlot rules always come to mind this time of the year – and usually right before the Astros are packing up from Houston to go start spring training in Florida. We didn’t have spring training in Pecan Park. – We just started playing, but to be honest – as always – our games were pretty much restricted to weekends until school was out for the summer at the end of May.

The only official rules that mattered were the rules of organized baseball – which we all just knew without any memory of who taught them to us. We think that some people are just born knowing the rules of baseball – and that The Pecan Park Eagles just came out of that batch.

Once summer started, there was only one unnecessary-to-speak, but universally understood rule about “Eagle Park” from the first church-free morning at the end of the school term through Labor Day: “When you wake up – show up!”

And everybody did, unless they were girls or sissies. – We even had one girl, named Eileen, who played ball like a “Flying Tiger”. She was as good as any boy on the field. She could run; she could throw; she could catch; and she could hit. About the only thing that kept her from being a five-star player was the fact that she was too small to hit for power. – Eileen was small, all right, but was she ever cute too! – As we all grew into adolescence, we came to appreciate that fact about Eileen. We were as protective of her as an army of big brothers.

The most common rule of baseball that we had to adjust was the “nine men in the field” side. We played games with everybody who showed up moved into the game right away. Sometimes we played with 15 men on each side; sometimes we played with 7 men in the field.

Whenever we could, we plugged in our “pig tail hind catcher” position rule – and that was a big time saver, since we almost always only had one ragged baseball in play for our games. The “pig tail” position always went to some little five year old who was too little to do anybody any good at bat or on the field, but fast enough to retrieve balls that got past the catcher and were rolling east on Japonica Street. With no backstop, these runaway balls were a real nuisance and time killer – and they also were the big reason that our balls got scuffed. That skipping concrete roll was tough on them. At any rate, there was always one little kid around who loved taking the job – just for the sake of being part of the action. And a lot of us started that way. We also made sure, most of the time, that the pig tail got at least one time at bat for his efforts.

We also banned base stealing. The shortage of gloves and players who really knew how to defend against the steal – and the balls that got away from the catcher so often – were the big reason. Players could only advance a base on a batted ball, but that was OK with us. The Eagles were a basher-minded club. Everybody wanted to hit home runs. If there had been any fences, we would have been swinging for them on every pitch, but, in the absence of an enclosed field, we all swung to lift fly balls that would carry to what then seemed like the far reaches of left center – and beyond – to the spot where Japonica forked into Myrtle Street on its way west to Bobby Lee Street, Griggs Road and the Gulf Freeway.

"Because you held a larger world within you, I found a larger world in me." ~The Pecan Park Eagle

“Because you held a larger world within you,
I found a larger world in me.”
~The Pecan Park Eagle

Our basher problems were houses and cars. Sometimes we broke a house window and had to pay for it. Sometimes we just banged a house and earned a “lecture timeout” from one of the angry moms on Myrtle Street. There were a lot of angry women on Myrtle, but we never could figure out why. Our rogue fly balls couldn’t have been the whole reason for that much unhappiness.

One time, I swung late and  lined a shot onto Myrtle Street that went through the open window on the drivers side and hit a bald-headed man in the dome as he was headed west. The Pecan Park Eagles scattered like so many cockroaches as they saw the man struggling to both curse and stop his car at the same time. I stood there at home plate like a stunned or frozen statue of a miniature Babe Ruth – not so much admiring the shot – but completely fearing the shot that was about to come. To make it worse, I still held onto the bat I had used as the older man came rushing toward me with blood in his eyes.

Of course, he was coming at me. Everybody else had found a crack in some neighborhood wall to slither away to. – I was the only one left to go after – and I looked guilty as hell with that bat in my hand. I really felt badly – and not just because I was in trouble – but because I never wanted to hurt anyone that way – not even accidentally.

By the time he reached me, the man had calmed down considerably. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that he could see the painful look on my face, and knew that I had not meant to hurt him, but maybe it was because I told him, “Mister, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to hurt you!”

“I forgive you, young man,” the stranger said, “but not just because you have apologized, but because you didn’t run away. You stayed here to take responsibility for your actions.” – I didn’t tell him that my real reason for staying had been the fact that I was too scared to run, but somehow that other valuable life lesson had a change to grab even more leverage with me as a result of this situation – That is, the fact that we can never really run away from the consequences of harm we cause others, even if it is the result of an accident.

The man talked to me for a while – but whatever else he said has now zoned out of my conscious memory beyond the meaty part that I’ve reported here. I never saw him again, but I will never forget his face and what he looked like – and what he said to me.

At any rate, the incident caused us to insert a new ground rule. It didn’t last for long because it was out of whack with why we even played the game. The short-lived rule was this: Any ball that is hit out of Eagle Field into the street is an automatic out. It was a rule that led only to low scores and a lot of unhappiness – so we changed it. The second short-lived rule regarding same was Any fair ball that is hit out of Eagle Field into the street is a ground rule double; any foul fall that is hit out of Eagle Field into the street is still an automatic out.

We hated that one too. Homers were disappearing because you pretty much had to knock the snot out of the ball to get a legitimate home run. The little kids didn’t really care. If they got all the way home from a mishandled infield grounder they thought they had a home run. We older kids knew better. We took no joy from scoring a run that was the result of four errors on the same live ball. – We wanted that sweet-spot connection feeling – the feeling that only comes when bat meets ball and turns the latter rapidly into a soaring, departing pea in the summer morning sky.

We did the only thing we could do. We dropped the long ball ground rules and just spread the new word around: Try not to hit any cars.

"Pig Tail Run" Japonica Street was ur great "scuffer" of wild pitches, passed balls, and bad throws home.

“Pig Tail Run”
Japonica Street was ur great “scuffer” of wild pitches, passed balls, and bad throws home.

Those were the big ones from memory. I now choose here to not tax your attention span this Monday any further than I already have, but I do want add this closing thought.

We may not be able to return to our childhood sandlots, but we all still need something like it for life – some kind of time and space moveable sandlot involvement in life that brings us back into that state of pure joy we once knew. For many of us, it may be the giving of ourselves to others with whatever we have to give – or to some worthy cause that is lost on its own – or to a greater clarification and preservation of history or to the kinds of opportunities that open to us baseball-inclined people through a wonderful organization we know as SABR.

On the personal front, the Houston Babies vintage baseball team is the closest reenactment of the actual sandlot joy that some of us have ever known – even if we don’t play. Just being at a Babies game is big enough joy for me. On the general front, there are no big rules, as long as it is a civil pursuit that does not harm others or our world. Just find your horse and ride it. – Ride for the sheer joy of riding.

Have a nice day, Everybody!

 

 

 

 

 

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2 Responses to “Ground Rules of the Sandlot”

  1. Tom Hunter Says:

    Chris Epting wrote a book entitled “Roadside Baseball: uncovering hidden treasures from our national pastime,” with a forward by Joe Buck and published by Sporting News Books in 2003.

    I found it on the shelf at Barnes & Noble, gave it a cursory look, and bought it. Along with the obvious references to Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park, and Wrigley Field are descriptions and photographs of such obscure places as Cleveland’s League Park, Branch Rickey’s boyhood home, and Babe Ruth’s grave.

    Included in the section on Texas are several old ballparks one would expect to find: Buff Stadium, Colt Stadium, and the Astrodome. And then amazingly on page 162 was Zychlinski Park, 2319 Grand Blvd., Pearland. I was astonished when I turned to this page. How did the place where I spent half my childhood, either at recess from elementary school or playing baseball in the summer, end up in the same book as the House That Ruth Built?

    It was just called the park when I played there. Later it was named for the man who founded Pearland in 1894, Witold von Zychlinski. I contacted the author, but he couldn’t remember who told him about the ballpark.

    In 2007, a copy of the book was placed in Zychlinski Park in a time capsule, scheduled to be opened in 2057.

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