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Rich Kimball Rich Kimball
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Sports as a microcosm of society at age 9

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Several weeks ago, I shared some memories of summers in the days before youth sports exploded into a nearly mandatory way of life and I had a great response from people who remembered, as the great sports fan Barbra Streisand sang, 'the way we were.'

That got me to thinking even more about those relatively carefree days and how there were some pretty clear hints in the way we played about how we all would turn out. As the father of a two-year old, it's fascinating to look back now and see how little many of my ballpark associates would change as time went by.

Even though our daily summer games were unsanctioned and unfettered by adult supervision, it would be wrong to imply there was no organization. Without benefit of printed schedules, a calling tree, and certainly not a neighborhood Facebook page, we all arrived at the same time every morning, barring torrential rains. Most of the impetus was because we wanted to play but there was also the fact that all of our mothers gave us some variation of the 'go outside and play' speech on a regular basis.

(Editor's note: Names have been changed to protect the guilty.)

Usually we would gather at the ballfield by 8:30, except for Tony, who always arrived fifteen minutes after everyone else, a pattern he would repeat in school and at a string of jobs through the years. I long ago lost touch with him, but if he's married, I suspect somewhere his wife is yelling, 'Tony, hurry up!'

There was no formal structure to our group and no vote was taken, but Sam was the guy we all looked to when it came time to pick teams. Unlike most nine- or ten-year-olds, he had a feel for the big picture, wanted fair teams and was the one who would be first to the rescue when arguments threatened to escalate to full scale conflagrations. It was no surprise to me that he grew up to become a firefighter and eventual fire chief.

One of the most valuable guys to have on your pick-up team was named Will. He was smaller than most but was a fearless defensive player, a tough out at the plate, and the best around at repairing a broken wooden bat with electrician's tape. Will went on to be an aircraft mechanic and later opened his own business and probably still is finding ways to MacGyver solutions to any problem.

There were other memorable regulars, like Bobby, a gentle giant who was my bodyguard and avenger. He didn't get mad often but when a kid named Richie decided he wanted my Carl Yastrzemski autograph model bat for his own, Bobby reared up to his full height and made it abundantly clear what a bad idea that would be. Richie caved in but spent most of his young life running from the law; Bobby never became a cop or anything like that, but he bailed me out of many a situation in those elementary school years.

Then there was Jack, who always showed up in a polo shirt and khakis and whose hair never seemed to move. He wasn't a great player but he always looked like one. When he graduated, he went on to do some modeling and acting, which seemed just about perfect. And I can't forget Brad, who argued over every call, even though he could never remember the rules. I later heard he got dishonorably discharged from the military. Go figure.

I was a little guy and while I didn't throw very hard, I had Maddux-like control - as long as the mound was only forty-five feet away. I also threw from a variety of arm angles, including a Ted Abernathy-esque submarine pitch, which one of the guys always called that 'stupid sidearmy st.'

I attributed my accuracy to the gift of a Pitch-Back Net on my eighth birthday. If you never saw one of these contraptions, consider yourself lucky. Basically, it was a string net with a 'strike zone' in red, held in place by the most flimsy orange frame ever made. The Pitch-Back was never good for more than two throws in a row before one side would fall down or the whole thing would collapse on itself. What made it oddly effective was that there was a sweet spot about the size of a penny that you could hit without the fool thing imploding, so you really learned how to keep it 'on the black', as later generations would call it. I also kept everyone's statistics in my head and, without thinking about, did a sort of mental play-by-play while I was on the mound. I may not be any better at it now but at least I get paid for it today.

Being nine or ten also meant you were blissfully unaware of things like socio-economic differences. We always felt bad for what we called 'the camp kids,' whose parents would take them away from our games for most of the summer to an idyllic spot on a lake. Our 'camp' consisted of the public pool, where it was a 50-50 proposition whether Ray, the mid-twenties lifeguard, would look away from the bikini-clad high school girls gathered around him in time to save you while you were thrashing away and swallowing mouthfuls of water from the deep end.

Those summer games are a distant memory now, but all it takes is the smell of fresh-cut grass or a leather baseball glove and I'm transported to that magical time. I've lost touch with some of those players but it continues to amaze me how many of the guys went on to become as adults a version of what they were on the ballfield.

Maybe that's because the old adage rings true - sports don't build character, they reveal it.


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