Smile Politely

For love of the game

I remember when baseball was a lot different. As a boy, I remember when baseball was everything for most of the year when we weren’t shooting hoops in our driveway or dodging cars each Autumn as we hurled pigskins at each other.

Recently, here in our town, I found something that sent me hurtling back to those days and I’d like to tell you about it.

When we were kids, every day in the warm weather, even into the early Autumn, after school, sweeping by what chores and homework we had, it was off to the lot to play baseball or wiffle ball or a version of the game my brother and I made up called Deuce Baseball, able to be played only because our street ended in a cul-de-sac. There were no formal teams; we just kind of knew how to make fair sides. We didn’t worry about lines for the field and bases were whatever we could find and there were arbitrary lines for home runs and no concern for windows until we hit one. And there were plenty of arguments about a changing set of rules that depended on what happened to your team. But there were no adults, not ever, and we managed to play more innings than Cal Ripken.

All of that changed of course when Little League emerged. The sandlot was done. Parents were everywhere. They constructed fields, paid umpires, made sure the rules were followed exactly and even drafted us for their teams like the pros do. If you were really good, you were a neighborhood superstar. If you were not very good, sometimes you never played, or, in later years, you played your obligatory two innings and found the bench immediately. Everything was organized and the arguments shifted to the parents and there were many of them. Stories of crazy parents at Little League games are legendary.

I don’t know if that kind of scene got Wes and Amanda Miller started on a local experiment, but it probably would have been good motivation. Probably, for Wes, who teaches at Garden Hills Elementary School, his main drive for starting a neighborhood tea — Northside Sandlot Baseball — was that it kept him close to his dad who was as much a lover of the game as anyone could be. Theirs was the kind of family that visited baseball stadiums for vacation. Before Wes’ father passed away they had visited 23 of the 30 with the other 7 a goal of Wes and Amanda.

In interviewing Wes, it was clear that besides his deep love of the game, Wes’ father taught him that the game was for kids to have fun and enjoy and for the adults to help them by not having the competitive attitude that makes for bad feelings and separates the players into good and bad.

They just wanted to let the kids play and have fun. And that’s exactly the approach they take.

So Wes and Amanda started Northside Sandlot Baseball. They noticed that a lot of kids in the Stratton and Garden Hills school areas were not playing baseball. Partly it was financial, but partly it was because no one was encouraging them to play. They could even get scholarships, but they were choosing not to get involved.

Wes and Amanda wanted to do something about that. His father had taught him to teach fundamentals and a love of the game. Just let the kids play. So Amanda and Wes went to two schools and passed out flyers. Do you want to play baseball? No fee or equipment needed. And they posted practice times.

The initial response was great, but transportation was an issue and the Millers knew immediately that this was going to take more time than just coaching. Eighteen kids sporadically played that first year at the overgrown Garden Hills Park. By the second year there were 28 and family members began to pitch it. It became a neighborhood affair.

“We noticed kids did not like baseball or know much about baseball or have much interest in the game at all,” says Wes. “We wanted to give children a chance to learn about the game, give it a try and see if they enjoy it as much as we do, and also provide some avenue for parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, families and children to interact and have some fun together through baseball.”

That philosophy has worked as the program enters its fourth year with plenty of steam. But there is much to do as this expands. Funds are needed, of course, for things like insurance. They need kid-sized gloves, cleats, bats, and balls. They also could use volunteer coaches and people to pass out flyers. So if you like this simple vision and want to help there are plenty of ways you can. Contact the Millers at: [email protected], until the end of May or call 841-3105 any time. The season starts June 7 and there is going to be a fundraiser on June 6 at the Iron Post where New Twang City will play. It will be a fun way of meeting the Millers and showing your support-and there will be prizes! (Info below.)

In these times of ridiculous contracts and player/owner egos flying about on an unprecedented scale, it is nice to hear about some folks who are doing it for the love of the game.

Here are the Specs if you want to help:

Contact: Wesley or Amanda Miller, 841-3105

Invite Kids To Play: K-5-Starting June 7 games every Tuesday and Thursday, 10:30 a.m.–12:30 a.m. at the Garden Hills Baseball Park.

Donations: Sponsor a child for $5 or donate $15 and get your own team shirt or hat. Checks to: Wesley or Amanda Miller, made out to Northside Sandlot Baseball, Box 785, St. Joseph, Il., 61873.

Clean-Up Park: Sunday, May 21-10 a.m to noon. Also, every Tues/Thurs. 10:30-12:30 all summer. Field is at Garden Hills Elementary School, 2001 Garden Hills, Champaign, Il., 351-3872.

FUNDRAISER: Monday, June 6, 6 -9 p.m. Band: New City Twang and prizes too. Donate funds and donate gloves.

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