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Now and Then

Now and ThenYou don’t have to look too hard to find an article documenting the poor shape that our kids are in today. When you’ve got the NFL sponsoring a program encouraging kids to play outside for 60 minutes a day, you know that we’re in danger of having our future Olympic medal counts resemble those of Trinidad and Tobago. Personally, I think they could save a lot of money by just running a commercial with my dad telling them to find something to do or he would find something for them to do. Isn’t the implied threat of being forced to clean the garage a universal motivator? It always worked on my sister and me. Nowadays everybody seems to have a reason why little Johnny and Janie look like the offspring of the Michelin man, but I think I’ve figured it out, and it has nothing to do with Facebook, iPhones or video games. We’ve made things too nice. By providing our children with the playing fields we could only dream off, we’ve created an environment where that they can’t lower themselves to play on anything else.

Let me explain. My son’s baseball team just played their first game of the season on a field that to a 12-year version of myself would have been like the one in Field of Dreams–without the cornfield. And these places are everywhere. When I was a kid we played at any place that had a backstop. You remember. Those big things made of chain link fence that always seemed to be about 100 years old, and had a hole in them that drew the ball like a magnet so that the kid playing catcher always had to run around it to get the ball back. The field my son played on didn’t have one of those. Instead it had a durable mesh netting that cradled even the most vicious foul tip before dropping it gently to the ground.

The infield was also quite a bit different from the ones I remembered as a kid. First, it had grass so neatly manicured and lush it looked like the 5th fairway at Augusta National. The infields that I played on when I was a kid had grass too. Those hard little knots of sod and weeds that combined with so many rocks and gouges to make fielding even the most routine ground ball an act of pure physical courage. Minefields offered a truer bounce. I can still remember my coach yelling at me to “keep my body in front of it”. Easy to say when you’re a paunchy 40-year old man squeezed into a T-shirt that says “Coach”; not so easy to do when you’re a kid who knows that this means the ball has the same likelihood of ending up in your face as your glove.

I also couldn’t help but notice that the infield dirt was neatly raked and smoothed. I’m not sure the fields of our youth ever saw a rake. Really, what would have been the point? Talk about your exercises in futility. Raking the parking lot would have been more productive. Along with resembling a lunar landscape, the infields of my youth all but eliminated the act of sliding into a base. A stand up double or triple wasn’t a description of an actual play… it was a survival mantra. Every now and then some overzealous kid would hit the dirt going into second only to leave about a foot of his epidermis behind him. The resulting “raspberry” usually brought even the most stoic youth to tears right then and there. And even if he did manage to hold it together in front of the rest of us, we all knew he’d break when he got home and his mom “cleaned it up for him”. Who needs waterboarding when you’ve got hydrogen peroxide?

The field was also surrounded by a fence. Not one of those orange hurricane things that they only put up during the playoffs, but an actual fence. I must admit that this does enforce a traditional element of baseball that I think shouldn’t be infringed on—that a homerun actually “go over” the fence. On the ever expanding planes (read fenceless) fields of my youth, a homerun was typically a hard ground ball to left that simply rolled forever trailed by some kid throwing his glove at it in a vain attempt to slow it down.

I was also struck by the amenities of the place. It had its very own electronic scoreboard to replace the two team mom’s with scorebooks that double checked each other after every inning. The unsheltered splintered wooden team bench that my polyester uniform—that one’s that seemed to melt on your back– clad teammates and I sat on during a July afternoon in Texas—and for those of you who have been there, you know what I mean–has been replaced by covered dugouts that are bigger than my first apartment. And finally, the lawn chairs along each baseline filled with parents screaming invectives loaded with vocabulary that one doesn’t ordinarily learn at mother’s knee, have been replaced by concrete bleachers filled with parents screaming invectives, well, you get my point.

So I guess the question is if you’re a kid today, “why would you reduce yourself to playing on a field that resembles a 3rd world version of a park, when you can be transported in your parent’s air conditioned SUV to the homunculus version of a major league stadium to play your game in a “raspberry free” zone?” I’m not sure if the same choice had been available to me I wouldn’t be making the same decision myself. I think the bigger question we as parents should be concerned with is that now that our progeny will accept nothing but the best for their athletic activities, what are we going to do when they start to drive?