My childhood baseball career was hardly Hall of Fame material: Career home runs? One. I can still feel that sweet moment when the bat connected with the pitch and I watched, almost in a trance, as the ball seemed to float away from the infield—but I can also remember vividly the teammate who tearfully screamed at me as I touched home plate. (In my out-of-body exuberance after making contact with the ball, I’d blindly hurled my bat behind me—directly into his face.)
But I mean, c’mon: Baseball is baseball. In the small town in North Dakota where I grew up, it existed somewhere in the realm between religion and pastime. My dad played on traveling teams during his younger years and—so the family legend goes, at least—was recruited by the Minneapolis Milers to play minor league ball for them before World War II got in the way. Decades later, after both my dad’s and my playing days were over, he called balls and strikes behind the plate as an umpire at my local field, and my brother Steve led the crowd in singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the seventh-inning stretch. I have another old picture of my dad’s dad, my grandfather Guy, in the uniform of his traveling team, on the back of which he’d written a note to his father (my great-grandfather Francis), a long narrative in a looping cursive script that centered entirely around the prospects and fortunes of the upcoming baseball season. (The note mentions exactly nothing about the fact that Guy’s wife, Mary, was about to give birth to my father in a few weeks.)
And what, exactly, am I doing to keep my family’s generations-long love of the game humming along? Until recently, not a lot. We’ve made family trips out to see the Cyclones play in Coney Island—my daughter, now 7, and my son, 4, even got to run the bases before and after the game—and we play a little catch in Prospect Park now and again. But they’ve shown little interest in joining the pee-wee leagues in the park that scores of kids flock to each weekend—and frankly, this has been perhaps a little more than okay with my wife and me, who maybe, just maybe, bristle a bit at the notion of a forced march to regular early-weekend-morning practices and games.
Still, the game of baseball was (there’s no way around this) talking to me. And then, in the way of all megalomaniacs, I suddenly wondered: Why couldn’t I start my own damn league and introduce kids to America’s pastime the way that I wanted to—to somehow wrangle all the fun of the game with none of the tedium?
Easy, right? Well, yes. . . and no. The where part was easy: Prospect Park and its ballfields are virtually at the end of our block. Who? Pretty easy, again: My kids have a ton of friends from school and from the neighborhood, and my wife—aka my director of scouting operations—simply texted a bunch of our local friends with kids to recruit a few more until we had about 20 kids seemingly ready to roll (hit, run, pitch, etc.) on Saturday of Memorial Day weekend for what I had begun to call—in a (mostly failed) attempt to stoke enthusiasm and excitement—Rebel League Baseball.
Just a simple game, then: grab a bat and a Wiffle ball and hit the park? Absolutely not. Part of the reason I’d steered clear of the organized kids’ leagues was their lack of spectacle. If I was going to have my own league, I wanted the bats and the balls, yes, but the bells and the whistles too. While uniforms seemed a bit presumptuous for the first game, color-coded team caps seemed modular, reusable and—thanks to a quick last-minute trip up to the Garment District—cheap. Tip: Call a wholesale shop and ask them if they’ll sell you a couple dozen children’s-size baseball caps if you don’t have a wholesaler’s license and they’ll tell you no—but show up at one of the shops on the north side of 29th Street on either side of Sixth Avenue, act like you vaguely know what you’re doing, and have a handful of cash, and you’ve got as many hats as you can carry for a buck or two apiece. (One more word to the wise: Maybe don’t make one of the hat colors red; from behind, one of the teams ended up looking a bit too mini-MAGA for my tastes.)
As for the rest of the gear? Easy. I’d been keeping an eye out at stoop sales for the last few years and had picked up a small arsenal of kid-size baseball gloves; ditto with Wiffle balls, foam baseballs, and the like.
Another bedrock requirement: music. I spent much of an evening making the ideal baseball-centric Spotify playlist. And while tastes of course may vary, if you don’t have a few tracks off Gil Imber’s Ballpark Organ compilation—along with John Fogerty’s “Centerfield” and some hard-rocking walk-up songs (the songs you play just as each new batter walks from the dugout or bench to home plate) along with an old-time version of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” for whatever you want to call your seventh-inning stretch—you won’t be playing in my league. Charge up a decent-size Bluetooth speaker and get the atmosphere going early.
Location: An actual baseball field, of course, is preferred. Keep an eye out for when local leagues and organized teams (who generally have permits for this kind of thing) are finished playing, and then simply seize the moment and pounce. I grabbed some old sports-stadium seat cushions to use as bases (for my crowd, which ranged in age from 4 to 12 or so, I made everything about half the distance of a regulation field). I brought a tee-ball set along for the littlest rookie kids to hit from if they wanted to and threw easy underhand pitches to everybody else.
Once the kids were assembled and I had some semblance of their attention, I got everybody lined up for some batting practice (basic tips: bend those knees; make your body face the plate, not the pitcher; keep the bat up and your elbows out, and swing through the pitch), then led everybody on a run around the bases. (There’s always a kid who, when he gets his first hit, tries to run to third base—he probably throws his bat behind him at his teammate’s head too.) Then I separated the blue and red teams according to some vague perception of ability, deputized a couple other parents as team managers (their only job, really: keep the teams vaguely focused on the game and get the next kid ready to step up to the plate to bat).
As for the game itself? Let’s call it. . . shambolic. Every kid—magically—somehow got a hit; hits that landed just a little bit foul were deemed fair, and sometimes batters were allowed a fair bit more than three strikes. For a while, we even kept score. The point is—the point always is, in Rebel League Baseball: Fun first. If everybody learned a little bit about the game, that was a bonus.
Off the field, the game for the parents was a simple one: Make sure everyone’s got something good to drink and eat. Again, my wife was instrumental in this, providing both boozy Arnold Palmers and, almost miraculously, a strawberry shortcake conjured seemingly out of thin air while I was rummaging around in the basement gathering and dusting off the equipment; some other friends brought homemade kombucha spiked with gin (number one: the friends are Australian; number two: didn't I say I lived in Park Slope?). Every now and again I had to deputize a grown-up to join me on the field to help stoke momentum, make a cameo as catcher, or handle the sort of rando problems that only a group of 4-to-12-year-olds can come up with, given a few bats and balls and a whole lot of each other.
Was the game perfect? Not quite. For starters, it didn’t occur to me until the game began that I couldn’t manage both teams, pitch, and be a batting coach and general baseball cheerleader while also DJ’ing cool walk-up tunes for each kid. The amount of energy—almost Herculean, really—needed to keep the attention of a largish group of kids focused on a game that few of them had any understanding of whatsoever was something that I drastically underestimated. And I should have provided a lyric sheet so that our sizable contingent of English friends could have actually sung along to “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” (We’ll also have popcorn in brown paper bags—Cracker Jacks were nixed, sadly, because of peanut-allergy worries.)
Did the players on the field notice any of the above? Not a lick. In the days after the game, more than a few of their parents told me that their kids now spoke of me as some kind of baseball whisperer, and my own kids seemed to delight in the whole, yes, spectacle. (It didn’t hurt that our first game ended with the dramatic liftoff of the three massive military helicopters from just beyond our outfield, replete with a performance by the U.S. Marine Corps Battle Color Detachment marching band in full regalia—a happy Memorial Day coincidence that some of the children seemed to think was orchestrated by me.) More than a few kids and parents who couldn’t make the first game have already committed to the next, and now we’re gearing up to do it all over again. And while it’s still too early to put Rebel League in the realm of family tradition, I’m pretty sure that my dad and my grandfather would be happy that we’re all out there swinging for the fences.
Originally Appeared on Vogue