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Stan Grossfeld

Without pickup baseball, an empty space remains

A chewed-up baseball at McConnell Park in Dorchester is the only sign of the sport on an empty field.
A chewed-up baseball at McConnell Park in Dorchester is the only sign of the sport on an empty field.(Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff)

Decades ago, it was a simpler time during the golden age of pickup baseball. You would head down to the school yard, choose sides, and play baseball all day long.

No bases? Someone would grab an empty pizza box or a ripped shirt and anchor it down. No glove? The kid playing your position would flip you his between innings. There were no umps, no parents, and no travel teams. There was just one rule: Be home on time for dinner.

Those were the days before parents controlled youth sports. Now a pickup baseball game is as rare as a Red Sox win in London.

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So what happened?

The end of pickup ball started in the summer of 1981 with the murder of 6-year-old Adam Walsh, according to Tom Farrey, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society Program.

Walsh, whose father, John, would later start “America’s Most Wanted,” was abducted from a Hollywood, Fla., mall. Police released a photo of him smiling broadly in his baseball uniform gripping a bat. The gruesome discovery of Adam’s body came two weeks later near Vero Beach, Fla. Other abductions fueled rampant fear.

“It set off this wave of parental panic in which it was no longer considered good parenting if you didn’t know where your child was or who was watching your child 24/7,” says Farrey.

Sports became more sophisticated. The travel teams in the 1980s-1990s required more practices and coaches.

It was followed by the video game explosion, which became increasingly interactive as it became more evolved through technological advances.

“It became a social experience because you put on a headset [and play] with your friends,” Farrey says.

Plus, there were other advantages, according to Farrey, most notably the absence of the helicopter parent.

“When you screw up, no parents yell at you, and you start and you stop when you want,” Farrey says.

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The changes on the playing field offered a new world of opportunities. Those that played travel ball received better instruction, new challenges, bonding experiences, and lessons in team building and sportsmanship.

The cons, however, included significant costs, huge time commitments, and too much parental control.

A quiet afternoon at Tom Nevers Field in Nantucket.
A quiet afternoon at Tom Nevers Field in Nantucket.(Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff)

Farrey argues there are more benefits from pickup play than organized play.

“It is a training ground in American democracy,” he says. “The great thing about pickup neighborhood games is you don’t put all the good players on one team like you do in the travel team world. You split them up because if you don’t split them up and you’re not inclusive, you don’t have a game.”

Recently, the Globe took a random look at area ball fields and found them mostly vacant.

Now, Brady O’Connor, 7, pitches to his grandmother in McConnell Park in Dorchester on a sunny Friday morning.

O’Connor plays in a couple of different organized leagues and has even won a Sportsmanship Award in Dorchester. He says his mom doesn’t want him playing video games. His grandmother says the other kids are at camp and nobody comes to the park.

“There’s no kids around,” says O’Connor. “They don’t play any ball. It’s a bad thing. I’d rather play baseball. That’s my favorite sport.”

On the other side of the diamond, Lance Wheeler, 62, a foreman with the Boston Parks and Recreation Department, picks up trash and boxes of fireworks left about the infield from a Fourth of July celebration.

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Wheeler says when he was growing up in Roxbury, pickup games were the norm. All you had to do was show up.

“We played in the street, in the back school yard,” Wheeler says. “I played all the time. That’s the way it was. You didn’t have to be from the neighborhood, we didn’t have this thing, ‘This is my turf,’ and all that stuff, we just played ball.”

Lydon McGarrell of South Boston practices street hockey by himself, the teen choosing sports other than baseball to play with his neighborhood friends.
Lydon McGarrell of South Boston practices street hockey by himself, the teen choosing sports other than baseball to play with his neighborhood friends.(Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff)

Wheeler says there were no fights back in his day.

“It was just an automatic thing that we respected each other,” he says. “We played wherever we could to have some fun. But now times have changed.”

Wheeler says parents involved in organized ball do not distinguish themselves with their poor behavior and delusional attitude.

“They all believe their kid is the most special one and they get a little riled up,’’ he says. “I’ve seen fights. I think you should let the coach coach and you be the parent.”

He also believes children should not have too much time on their hands.

“I have five sons,” Wheeler says. “As a parent, it was my job to influence them do these things and not let them sit around with those video games. I made sure they got involved in sports and they never got in trouble.”

Arthur Argenzio, 72, hits golf balls at the two ball fields behind the Beachmont Veterans Memorial School in Revere where he used to play.

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Today, the fields are deserted.

“It used to be in the day you could get 18 kids together and play a game of baseball,” Argenzio laments. “Not anymore. They’re on their iPads and computers and all those other damn things, playing all those games that they play, which is fine, but not every day of the week.

“I guess [pickup ball] stopped when all this high tech [started]. But they’re the ones missing out.”

Brady O’Connor, 7, pitches to his grandmother in McConnell Park in Dorchester.
Brady O’Connor, 7, pitches to his grandmother in McConnell Park in Dorchester. (Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff)

Lydon McGarrell, 15, of South Boston practices street hockey by himself on the Fourth of July.

He says the pickup game may be dead for baseball, but not for other sports.

“Me and my friends play street hockey, pickup basketball, Wiffle ball. We play street hockey a lot,” McGarrell says. “We love it, it’s just more fun. There are fewer rules; we can do whatever we want.”

McGarrell begins to criticize the involvement of overbearing parents, saying, “parents are a pain in the butt,” but he backtracks from that comment.

“Parents make you understand the games a little better,” he says. “But pickup games are for you to enjoy.”

As many as 70 percent of kids active in organized sports discontinue their involvement by the time they reach 13, according to research by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Ryan Wolff, 13, of Andover, is on vacation in Nantucket but there are no pickup baseball games here either. He’s worried about fewer kids playing baseball.

“It’s a fun game,” he says. “Kids should just come to the field and have some fun and just laugh with their friends. But they’re too lazy, they want to stay at home and sit back on their phones.”

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Brabal Lakhanbal is kicking around a soccer ball with a friend at Noyes Playground, one of the largest playgrounds in East Boston at 8.22 acres. Behind them is an empty baseball field.

Lakhanbal says he sees both the good and the bad in the structure of organized sports.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” says Lakhanbal. “Its good to have coordinated sports because it gives kids an avenue to progress through, but at the same time it takes away from the spontaneity of just going out and playing.

“It’s taking away what a kid might discover for himself.”

Lance Wheeler, a Boston Parks Department foreman, picks up trash and fireworks leftover from Fourth of July celebrations at McConnell Park in Dorchester.
Lance Wheeler, a Boston Parks Department foreman, picks up trash and fireworks leftover from Fourth of July celebrations at McConnell Park in Dorchester.(Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff)

Stan Grossfeld can be reached at grossfeld@globe.com..