While walking through Van Cortlandt Park this past week, I passed by—as I often do—a hallowed entrance. It’s a small cutout in a fence that provides access to three baseball diamonds. It’s the very same opening that I—four decades ago—traversed when a bunch of us in the neighborhood decided to “hit some out.”
Sitting on our front stoops on spring and summer days (and early eves, too), we would frequently pose the immortal question: “What do you want to do?” Sometimes we’d settle upon walking to nearby Van Cortlandt Park, or Vanny as it is colloquially known, with our baseball bats, balls, and gloves in tow. If we had at least four bodies, we would upgrade “hit some out”—which was a lot of fun and good exercise—into a self-hitting game that utilized half the infield and half the outfield. And that was even more fun and very good exercise.
It’s April now—baseball season—and we’ve experienced several warm days this month. But kids batting balls around on the ball fields are hard to come by. Organized games are still played on them, but seldom are the non-uniformed spotted playing variations of the summer game. It’s kind of depressing. The passage of time has left the fields intact. In fact, Van Cortlandt Park is in much better shape than it was in the 1970s, when the city’s fiscal crisis did a number on parks and everything else. But I certainly didn’t care that the infield needed a serious manicure—bad hops were the rage—and the outfield grass appeared more yellow than green.
And so this has become my new Rite of Spring—to take note of what’s not occurring anymore in springtime. It’s getting worse, too, with seemingly everyone—including the very young—addicted to devices. Spring for me in the 1970s cried, “Play ball!” The New York Mets were back in town as well—and on the tube and radio—with the warm and reassuring voices of Lindsey Nelson, Bob Murphy, and Ralph Kiner serenading me once more. The sights and sounds of baseball were everywhere. At the start of the 1970s, April meant it was Wiffle ball season and the spaldeens were bouncing again. By the mid- to late-1970s the stickball bat had replaced its Wiffle ball counterpart and the tennis ball, the once ubiquitous spaldeen, which was already being phased out.
If given the choice of “hitting some out at Vanny” or playing with a smartphone, what pray tell would a contemporary kid more likely choose? I could hazard a guess. Now there still is a ball field where the field is warm and green. But the people aren’t playing their crazy game with a joy that’s no longer seen.
(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)