How West Side Little League Shaped Our Life

| 22 Oct 2014 | 11:00

Saturday morning. Central Park. The West Side-Harlem Senior Baseball League. My 14-year-old son, John, is pitching. Everywhere I look are kids and parents I’ve known for years. The racial mix is impressive, and spirits are high. The West Side Little League was always a major part of my life, as well as my son’s. John began playing as a seven-year-old on the field at 72nd Street and Riverside Drive. At that age, the kids didn’t pitch, the dads did. A few years later, between the ages of 10 and 13, the action moved uptown, to the four ballfields between 103rd and 108th Streets in Riverside Park. On those fields, I watched at least a hundred games. The kids were so serious. And on the backs of their shirts were the names of their neighborhood sponsors: Morris Brothers, West Side Camera and Schatzie’s (the butcher on Amsterdam Avenue). The parents were usually just off the field watching through a metal fence. At one particular game, I was chatting with another player’s mom, when suddenly, there were yells and cheers. I looked up. A dad of another player, standing on the other side of me, leaned over and announced with a grin, “A brilliant catch and a major out was just made by none other than your John.” I was so thankful he’d told me, since John always teased me about gabbing instead of watching diligently. John played sports all year, soccer in the fall and basketball in the winter, but baseball was his first love. As a pre-teen he usually played infield — shortstop or first base. He learned valuable lessons: how to lose without tears or bitterness; how to win without arrogance; how to control your mouth and temper when the call goes against you (he watched his best friend get thrown out of a game for cursing at the umpire); and most challenging, he learned how to be an individual in a team sport. He experienced the difference between hitting a home run and having your team lose. And conversely, having your team win but knowing you could have played better. He learned all of this from his coaches — the parents of other kids. He would have balked if his dad or I lectured him. But the lessons he learned through playing stayed with him for the rest of his life. His dad and I, divorced since John was four, were both involved. When John was ten, his dad was one of the coaches. Through his teenage years, I got more involved. The 13-year-olds played on a field in Morningside Park. This was 1991. A group of moms would arrive early with plastic garbage bags to comb through the field picking up used needles and empty crack vials. The League paid to use home plate umpires and I volunteered to hire and schedule them in for games. I’ll never forget the two lovely people I met. One, a woman who umpired for many NYC leagues. Her attitude was as professional as they come. The other was a graduate student at Columbia. Between them, I had the whole season covered. I also learned something important about the game that year. I had not grown up as a baseball fan and so, I was learning as I went along. That season, when John was 13, he pitched. After watching a few games, and watching diligently, I suddenly realized the importance of the pitcher and why they made so much money. The last few years before John aged out of the League, he played on the fields in Central Park. The boys weren’t boys anymore; they were young men. By that time John was playing for his high school team as well. He went on to win the scholar/athlete award as a senior. His college application process was all about baseball. At every college he applied to, the coaches were in touch with him. He wound up playing for a small Division 3 college. But he wasn’t done with West Side Little League yet. The summer after his freshman year, he played in the American Legion College Baseball League. The games were at Marine Field, in Brooklyn, a very long ride in a van from the West Side. It was a reunion for him and for me. Many of the boys from his years in Little League played that summer, and parents I hadn’t seen in over a year showed up at the games. It is not an exaggeration to say that the West Side Little League shaped my life and John’s. For me, it became a road through which I could and still do talk with my son about what he’s passionate about. For him, well, it shaped his life. He chose to fulfill his high school community service requirement by coaching a 10-year-old girls basketball team, also on the West Side. After college he volunteered to coach for a young boys baseball league in D.C. Eventually, he left his first career in the legal profession and is currently working in the field of sports and education. The baseball fields on the West Side may not look like the fields in smaller suburban towns, but for John and myself, they were definitely our Field of Dreams.