A little over a week and a half ago, the New York Times ran an article on the growing number of high school and junior high pitchers going under the knife. Of course, this article evoked reactions from quite a few baseball fans and writers. Many gasped in terror to the thought of coaches putting young careers on the line for the sake of local championships.
Maybe I am showing my age, but when I was growing up I never played for a travel team, an all-star team, or even attended a baseball camp. I played in the Melbourne, Florida Little League. I played one season in one organized league per year. That was it. However, when not playing little league, I played in hundreds, if not thousands, of pick-up games with friends. You know the type. It was the baseball most kids played before Wii’s and PS3’s lobotomized the youth.
During my street baseball heyday, I played on several different fields, all with different rules. You had the stickball game, with automatics, a chalk strike zone on the back of building, and usually a rubber ball. There were the games on a real field, with “deadzones” – areas in which if you hit the ball to you were automatically out. There were games in the front yard, played both up the driveway or across the yard (these were generally abandoned at the age of 12). Then there was my most common field, the street.
Games in the street had much more room than games in the yard, were more contained than games on a real ballfield, and you could usually have bases, which made it more “realistic” than the stickball games. In my early to mid-teens, a few friends and I usually played ball on my block, with mailboxes for first base, a spare mitt for second, and a mark on a curb for third. For home, we had an actual rubber home plate, backed up by either a pitchback or a strategically configured stack of bicycles. Home runs were usually based on common agreement as long as the ball landed past the driveway of a neighboring home. It wasn’t The Sandlot, but it was our field.*
(Interesting aside part 1: a year ago or so I went back to my old block with the kids of my brother’s then girlfriend. As we tossed around a ball and played a game somewhat similar to pepper, a car came down the road. Not totally unexpected, as we were playing in the street. However, instead of showing contempt as the drivers did back when I was growing up, the driver actually commented how refreshing it was to see kids playing ball in the street again. I guess they don’t do that anymore.)
No matter where played or what style of game we played, there was one common theme: if you pitched, you were the pitcher for the whole game. And, for better or for worse, I was a pitcher. I threw wiffle balls, tennis balls, baseballs, or whatever else we used. It wasn’t uncommon for me to throw a steady mix of fastballs, change-ups, split-fingers, and knuckleballs for hours on end. I didn’t have a pitching coach, an instructor, or anyone else who knew anything about mechanics or proper technique.* There were no “high-pressure” or “low pressure” pitches. There was only going outside in the 90+ degree Florida sun and pretending to be everyone from Dwight Gooden to Dave Fleming (don’t ask). Heck, I don’t even remember taking much time to warm-up.
(Interesting aside part 2: For years I wondered why my fastball rode in on right-handed batters. Almost always. I thought it was just natural left-handed movement. A few years ago, however, I found out that for all those years I was throwing a two-seam fastball. I didn’t know you could throw a fastball any other way.)
My point is, are there still kids today who played as I did? These aren’t the kids who have people “protecting” their potential baseball careers, the ones with parents who can whisk them off to highly regarded surgeons for ligament surgery. There was no way my parents could have afforded to bring me to Dr. Andrews after I hurt my arm, and yes it did happen. It happened when I was 16 or so, after years of pick-up games, numerous little league seasons, and thousands of unsupervised pitches.
I don’t remember the exact date, all I remember is one summer a friend and I played a game a day for almost two weeks. That’s at least 75 or so pitches for approximately ten straight days (that’s 750 pitches for those counting at home.) Needless to say, towards the end of the second week my arm hurt. Yet, despite the pain, I went out and pitched again. As you could expect, my arm hurt even more.
Was I disappointed that when my arm stopped hurting I could no longer throw as hard? Of course I was. But that’s life. That was the Good Lord’s way of telling me I was never going to pitch at Shea Stadium, I wasn’t going to be the next Frank Viola or John Smiley (again, don’t ask), and I had no chance at making a living playing baseball.