On a recent bike ride, I decided to visit a few recreational athletic field complexes. It was a Saturday, and the fall sports season had just begun. I usually do these sight-turfing rides on weekday mornings, but today I wanted to see the fields in use.
I’ve read a lot about how we’ve become too parent-centric and serious about youth sports, ruining the experience for all. The games are over-run by extreme parents, coaches and bad behavior. Parents should be banned from youth sports, as one editorial I read suggests.
But that’s not what I saw on my ride.
On this bluebird September day, I saw baseball, soccer, football and lacrosse games going on at this park/high school complex. Then I closed my eyes and just listened. Nothing brings us together as a community quite like the local ballfield.
Lost in the click-hungry stories about a few miscreants was the larger idea that today’s community sports fields act as the quasi-public square of the American 21st century.
There were people of disparate backgrounds and ages cheering, talking and generally enjoying each other. As I stepped back to take it all in, I noticed more and more of what was really going on here, beyond the games on the field.
Sitting in the stands, or along the sidelines of the fields were the casual but important family interactions and conversations that can find little purchase in today’s always-busy lifestyle choices.
A few moms were grouped up, talking about the start of school for the kids, and finding ways to help each other. I couldn’t help but overhear as they were building and strengthening their stake in the community.
Same with the dads of the players out on the fields — casually chatting and enjoying some rare, but necessary bro-talk with each other.
There were the brothers and sisters of the players on the field, some too young for sports, playing casually in the surrounds of the fields, watched over by the older siblings. One young boy was shuttling plastic spoonfuls of mud from a nearby puddle back to his construction site laboriously tended to by his younger sister. They played, unstructured, under a large maple tree that was shading everyone in this community square, this plaza, this piazza, this neo- American community glue, the community ballfield. This stood out because one rarely sees kids without their heads in a phone screen these days.
Is there another place that brings people together like this in joyful celebration as the community sports field does? Think about it. Sure, we congregate in other places like churches, schools, social and public gatherings, but these are usually more solemn or adult events and nothing like a ballgame, which draws us more casually together as a whole family.
Where else in life do we scream out loud and literally jump with joy like we do at the kids’ ballgames? We underestimate this form of stress relief!
I don’t want to paint a fantasy. We all know that there are those who would poison our community ballfields with hyper-competitive and sour attitudes. They may grab the attention, but these narcissists and mouth-breathers are in the strong minority if you take the time to look. Even the kids look at them like they are crazy.
Mostly you’ll see everyday folks outside enjoying some friendly competition and discussing the day’s issues with their neighbors. Our local sports fields are the places we regularly gather nowadays to cheer, relax and catch up with our neighbors in a way that is unique in American culture.
COVER PHOTO: ROSS KURCAB