Throughout my Little League career in Queensbury, NY, one thing always baffled me: What the hell are the girls doing? The girls played softball; had their own fields, local business sponsors, fans, game times, and even their own organization, “Little League Softball.” The female sex could not have been more removed from my youth sports experience. We were never allowed to see them lace a line drive or assume a clay-caked sweat. Ten years since my last game of competitive baseball, I still know nothing about girl’s softball. They might as well have been playing on the goddamned moon.
When I was 7 and 8 years-old I lived in Maastricht; a city in the southern Netherlands. My father was awarded a Fulbright Teachers Exchange, and we lived there for almost two years while he taught English to Dutch university students. We sold our house (the only one in the neighborhood with a fenced-in baseball diamond), packed everything we owned and got on a plane. I remember leaving the second grade envious of my classmates. They were going to third grade while I, for reasons inadequately explained to me (probably because they weren’t accompanied by the Transformers theme song), was getting on a giant metal bird and sailing straight for the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Eaten by whales and lobsters; while the new season of G.I. Joe rattled through someone else’s mind and the latest Alvin and The Chipmunks 7” rotted on a Caldor shelf. But if I had to sacrifice all of the decade’s pop culture and every member of my extended family, my eight-year-old self would have done so in an instant for the chance to play Little League.
We arrived in July, and within weeks my parents had found the only youth baseball organization in Maastricht. But my addiction was satiated only briefly. The league consisted of three age groups; seven to nine, ten to twelve, and thirteen to fifteen. Each age group had one team. Unbelievable. Who the living fuck are we supposed to play against? Who in Shitsville are we practicing for? Why am I the only one of these cocksuckers using an aluminum bat? Although I can’t quote my tantrums precisely, one thing is still clear to me. For the first time in my life, the desire to win had been coldly removed from recreational sports.
I was placed on the 7 to 9 year-old team for about a week. It was a beginner’s group, and I realize now that this is when competitive sports begin for Dutch children. I was starting my third year. The coach of the 7 to 9 group moved me up with the 10 to 12-ers, who had been practicing as a team now for a few weeks. But I was a good enough player to take over the starting shortstop position, which, on a team of kids three years or so older than you, is the only prize worth a damn on God’s green earth. Now of course we must remember “starting” means “starting against no one,” so in essence its like being King of The Cemetary. Because you can practice all you want. Practice ‘till you pass out. My teammates and I made it fun of course (you get to know each other real well playing against an imaginary team), but the monotony of conditioning turned every ground ball fielded cleanly into another symptom of homesickness.
One afternoon I showed up at the park and was handed a red and white pinstriped uniform. My excitement was brief. With buttons in the front, and numbers on the backs, they were just like Yankees uniforms. But more importantly, for a die-hard Lenny “Nails” Dykstra fan they were the same pinstripes as the Mets! The irony of being stranded in Europe seemed now complete. All dressed up with no one to play.
In the US, teams are sponsored by local businesses and are suited up to entertain the community and the families of the players. Here, the dutch children were given plain red uniforms (the Maastricht soccer team’s colors), and sent out across the country to represent the community. I was told by my chainsmoking lesbian coaches, Titia and Miranda, that we were to be traveling by train this weekend to Eindhoven for a game. Eindhoven was the next big city to the north. I felt like a professional. I was traveling 20-30 miles for a game. I was the starting shortstop. I was something else too, that I wouldn’t realize until I was at the visiting team’s ballfield. I was, at eight, the youngest kid in the nation in the 10 to 12 league. And the only kid in the league with a bat that went PING!
The first Eindhoven hitter cracked a high infield fly. I heard our pitcher grown as he saw me underneath it, with my glove in the air. Fighting through the afternoon sun, I brought the ball into my glove. I had made the first out of the game. Several of my teammates politely clapped, with mitts tucked between their chests and arms, smiling to me. I remember being pissed off. We’re supposed to catch fly balls. We get benched and heckled by someone else’s parents if we don’t. This isn’t a goddamned piano recital.
Clapping. A moment in baseball history.
At first I thought there was a reason for this sportsmanship, and it sat behind home plate with a mask on. The best player the Maastricht baseball team had was our catcher, a girl named Anoeshka. She batted cleanup, and was probably our only power hitter. I didn’t even realize she was a girl until my managers introduced her to me before our second game, by saying, “She’s leading the conditioning today, because she’s our best player.” Anoeshka took off her catcher’s mask to reveal short, brown curls, and a quaintly freckled face. She didn’t say anything to me, she just smiled. Everyone liked Anoeshka and held her in the highest regard. She would lace the ball all over the outfield in practice. I always let her use my aluminum bat, the only person I trusted with it, but I never asked her any questions. I was secretly afraid of her. So too were my other teammates. I remember thinking that she might have friends who would kick us all off the team. I think the guys on the team, a little envious of her skill and determination, felt the same way.
[The 1988 Almere Giants. You've never heard of them, but these kids could play. Only time in my baseball career where I knew going into a game I was playing against the #1 team in the nation]
But Anoeshka was not the reason we were so well behaved. I think the reason we didn’t believe that baseball was responsible for the air we were breathing was because we were just playing to win. In the US, its not whether you win or lose, its how many candy bars can you sell.
Because Little League Baseball is a business. And if you’re nine, you work in the fuckin’ mail room.
The youth baseball leagues in the Netherlands don’t work on a system of outside sponsorship, and do not require the kids be involved with the economic fate of their activity. In Queensbury, where I played baseball from ages 9 to 13, there are around ten teams per age group, each team having roughly 15 kids. The kids are the same ones you see everyday in school, so you know whose team you’re playing against and whether or not you’re going to win. Businesses sponsor teams, which means they pay for the “uniforms” the kids wear. On the first Queensbury team I played on after returning from the Netherlands, my uniform was a t-shirt that read “Buy-Low Carpet Warehouse.” I remember going home after games, stripping it off me by the washing machine, and reading the white block lettering. What the hell is a “Buy-Low Carpet?”
Not only do the likes of “Adirondack Lumber” or “GenPak Foam Packaging” find a way to be emblazoned across your chest, a child also has to sell Hershey’s candy bars for the first month of the season to further sponsor their own league. Back in upstate New York, my inquisitive tone sounded eerily similar. What the living fuck do chocolate bars have to do with baseball? One detail was immediately clear above all others.Why are all the girls on the other side of the sports field complex?
I realize now that it was a complex. It wasn’t just a collection of fields, it was a collection of fields separated by fences, by distance, by angles. You couldn’t even really see the girl’s softball teams practicing. This is reason why Queensbury was not only a less enjoyable experience than the baseball I played in the Netherlands, it was also an competitive environment removed of a certain amount of accountability for the actions of the players, the coaches, and the fans.
At any game I played in the Netherlands – in various small towns and medium-sized towns linked by the country’s rail system – the game experience was remarkably different from that of the crowds back home. What struck me the most was how I was part of the dialogue between players and viewers. The parents would cheer for their kid and their respective teammates, but they didn’t yell to them the Hey c’mons and the Let’s gos that meant nothing except the explicit urgency for which they were yelled. The parents would encourage when necessity demanded, but would never do so at the expense of our focus on the game. I’m not saying when I returned home all civility went out the window, but there were remarkable differences in the crowd’s behavior. For instance, I remember my father asking my grandfather to leave a game because he was shouting extremely precise corrective criticism at my team’s infielders. I remember a bunch of other people’s parents never possessing the decency to excuse themselves.
But bleacher behavior aside, the most glaring differences with Queensbury baseball were those most subtle details that distinguished winners from losers. At the end of every game was the humiliating winner-loser handshakes. I remember staring at the kids who’d beaten my team as I shuffled by with outstretched hand in silence. Even people I recognized from the hallways of school every day were like aliens to me, aliens from a world where all one could feast upon was confidence. As if beating your friends wasn’t a fulfilling double shot of hubris on the rocks, the winning team was treated to a round of free sodas at the Little League snackbar. The rest of us took our clay-choked esophagi back home to Mom’s kitchen.
These of course, are just details. One must look to a case study in order to really relive the sport’s failings. Fortunately, I had a backstage pass to the Humiliation Festival that was the 1991 Queensbury Little League Minors Tournament.
At the end of the regular season there is a playoff tournament to determine who is the best team of that year. Of course after playing the same teams you already know who the best team is but you play the tournament anyway. This is where most of my cartoonish memories of Queensbury were shaped. Parents, coaches, and players, lose their fucking minds during the playoffs.
My team, Buy-Low Carpet Warehouse, was playing for third place in the Queensbury end of the year playoffs. We were playing Moran’s Sporting Goods, and the umpire behind home plate just happened to be the father of the Moran’s third basemen. We’re up by a run, our best pitcher on the mound, last inning. Game is in the motherfuckin’ bag I think, as I see the bottom of the lineup warming up. Crouched behind home plate, looking out at David Mills through my catcher’s mask, its three outs and we go home third placers. And the umpire calls nearly every pitch David throws a ball. And David does something nearly unheard of in the annuls of Little League. He walks five of the next six batters. He probably didn’t walk five more players his entire youth baseball career, but he walked five that inning. And Moran’s Sporting Goods celebrated right at home plate, as I stood with my mask and glove in hand, the guy on third waltzing carefully home to touch the plate and signify our defeat. I’m not saying I still haven’t gotten over finishing fourth place the year after I traveled to an island on the North Sea to compete (as the youngest player in league history no less) in a countrywide tournament in a professional baseball player’s uniform; all I’m insinuating is, if there were girls on our team… never would’ve happened. Not a fuckin’ chance.
The reason I volunteered to play catcher for the duration of my Little League career in Queensbury is because Anoeshka played the position. If in eight seasons of Little League in the US I could have learned anything else from the opposite sex, I would have been the better ballplayer and the better person for it. And I’m sure if I asked her today what the difference between softball and baseball is, she would probably answer, “A softball seems like a baseball; maybe a little softer, a little bigger. But I don't know, I've never seen one.”