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Rich Kimball Rich Kimball
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A boy of summer

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We're still in that part of spring where it's as likely to be a raw, windy 38 degrees as it is to be sunny and 70 but it won't be long until summer is here, offering youngsters of our state the days of leisure they've been dreaming about for months.

Of course, if they're involved in sports, they're not going to get that at all.

I'm old enough to remember a glorious time when summer was timeless, not only in the sense that it seemed to last much longer, but also because time didn't matter. There was no schedule, there were very few plans - that was the whole beauty of the season.

Most of my summer days as a kid were spent playing baseball. Not in a uniform being yelled at by Coach Buttermaker, but gathered on one of the many nearby ballfields with friends, enemies and kindred spirits who managed to organize hundreds of games every summer without benefit of adults to supervise.

We learned a lot in those daily games, including rules, technique, and strategy, but also how to settle our own disputes, pick fair teams, and understand our place in baseball pecking order. There were no pitch counts and, if there had been, we'd have all exceeded them before lunchtime. No umpires were needed and the biggest argument often involved a kid named Dave, who got mad when I pitched sidearm. We kept score but so many games were played in a day that only the most OCD among us would have any clue who had the upper hand when we grabbed our gloves and our wooden bats and headed home.

I share this story because young people today are unlikely to experience any of that. I pass by ballfields and basketball courts all summer long that stand mostly empty and almost never see kids involved in that age-old (and now nearly extinct) ritual of pick-up games. Organized sports has a stranglehold on our youth. Or more accurately their parents.

Parents who insist on getting them on teams, sporting uniforms and playing in front of crowds - sometimes before they can spell the sport they're playing.

I get it. Parents are busier than ever and we live in a time where many would be nervous about letting their 10-year-olds hop on their bikes and ride off several blocks to play unsupervised. Those challenges have led to the incredible proliferation of organized youth sports, where too often the emphasis is on the extremes. Coaches who will do anything to win, tournaments and championships for young people not mature enough to process what that means (and doesn't mean), or the 'everyone plays equally' mentality that insults the intelligence of even eight-year-olds and frustrates those with legitimate talents.

There are certainly some wonderful benefits to playing organized sports, along with many pitfalls that could provide plenty of material for a whole other column or two. But for the purposes of this discussion, it comes down to what the passing of time has meant.

It's a loss of the love of the game, a love that comes when kids play because they enjoy it, not to please adults. Most of all, the teams, the sports camps, the travel - they have taken away one of the great joys of childhoodthe days with nothing to do, when you had to learn to either organize your peers, entertain yourself, or better yet, develop your imagination.

That was the best part of being a boy of summer.

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