By MICHAEL WANBAUGH
THE GOSHEN NEWS
Since my daughter was 8 years old she has played travel softball. Our family vacations are always planned around weekend regional tournaments, four-day state tournaments, and even week-long national tournaments.
She has played against teams from Michigan, Florida, Ohio, Illinois and Missouri. Some of her teammates travel 30 or 40 miles just to practice. During tournaments they wear three sets of uniforms, matching helmets and cleats made especially for girls fast-pitch softball. They swing $300 bats and make regular visits to specialized hitting or pitching coaches.
It has been one of the great joys of my life watching my daughter play softball, bond with her teammates and fall so deeply in love with a sport. She just turned 15, is trying to make a high school team for the first time (she’s been attending 5:30 a.m. workouts since school started), and will travel again this summer with the Indiana Thunder.
This is what the landscape of youth sports looks like these days. This is what is expected to play at a high level in virtually any sport. I couldn’t begin to dream of doing what she’s done while I was playing park league baseball here in Goshen back in the 1980s. Two completely different worlds, indeed.
Back in the day, as they say, there was no Little League baseball or softball in Goshen. Kids of my 30- and 40-something era played their summer ball at Shanklin and Rogers parks. Leagues were run by The Goshen Parks and Recreation Department and the games were the highlight of every summer.
There was “Ponytail” softball for the girls. For baseball, boys started in the F.O.P. league at Rogers Park and were pitched to by coaches. From there they aged up to the Cadet and Junior leagues at Shanklin Park, and finally to the American League back over at Rogers Park.
Local businesses would sponsor the teams and provide uniforms that consisted of mesh-back hats and white T-shirts that were brown by the end of July. Some of the sponsors included Thompson Body Shop, I.B.E.W., the Moose Lodge, Everett’s, Parkside Pharmacy, Penguin Point and Hoogenboom-Nafziger.
For Cadet and Junior League, games were played at 8 a.m., 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. four days a week. Most of us would stick our mitts on our handlebars and ride our bikes to the park. After the games we would either sit around and watch more baseball, or walk 30 yards to the pool once it opened. I often wore my bathing suit (with a season patch stitched to it) to games under my “uniform.”
Since games were played during weekdays, parents rarely attended. Coaches would show up with a bag of aluminum bats, four or five helmets and some dusty catching gear. Eventually someone would yell “play ball.” First thing I would do is find the bat with the thickest grip because I knew it wouldn’t sting as much if I actually made contact. As for helmets, you couldn’t be picky if the bases were loaded.
I started playing in the Cadet League and played all the way through high school in the American League. The season that perhaps sticks in my mind most was my last year of Junior League. I was 13 and played for Everett’s. That was the first year I remember the sport starting to click for me. I never hated rain more than I did that summer.
Besides me, the Everett’s team consisted of Andy Streit, Shane Holden, Terry Jones, Mark Drapeza, Greg Ard, Chris Kaeser, Craig Van Curen, Ryan Miller, Greg Miller and Chad Miller. I believe Kris Kurtz even played a while. Between the 11 of us we didn’t own a single pair of baseball pants.
Those were the days when people would look at you funny if you showed up to the diamond in an actual baseball uniform. Strangely, it would have been out of place. It was the middle of July and people driving along Plymouth Avenue would see a rag-tag team of floppy-haired kids playing ball in sweat pants and blue jeans. You were really taking your game seriously if you could talk your parents into buying you a pair of Red Wing turf shoes from G.L. Perry. Otherwise, simple tennis shoes would do fine.
Our Everett’s team had a pretty good year in ’85, placing first in the regular season with an 11-5 record. It was Streit who was the difference for us. The son of a middle school health and gym teacher, Streit, at age 13, could throw a curve ball that sent batters spinning themselves into the ground.
By the time they realized the ball hadn’t hit them the umpire had already called a strike and the catcher was tossing the ball back with a grin. And that was without a pitcher’s mound. It would be another summer before we got one of those up in the American League.
Yes, the American League. In junior high, it seemed like the big leagues. Players were actually issued baseball pants and games were played under the lights at Rogers Park. Each team had its own coach and classmates would pack the bleachers.
We had sponsors like The Chief, Midwest Commerce Bank and Burger Dairy. But the teams were called the Red Sox, the Orioles, the Indians and so on.
I played for the Orioles and during my first year we made it to the tournament championship game. I played first base and our team was led by players like David Solyom, David Lee and Chad Peak. We got crushed by the Indians, but playing in that game was still the highlight of my summer.
So, this summer, as my daughter and I are checking into a hotel before one of her tournaments, I’ll think back to my park league baseball days in Goshen and remember just how good I had it. z
Michael Wanbaugh can be reached at email@example.com