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They play a new and different game on old field of dreams

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The game was different, but the field had an old familiarity.

By Steve Doyle

The line drive whistled off the pink bat toward third base, where it scattered the dust when it landed untouched by a fielder. The batter took off toward first base, where a coach was encouraging a runner already there to move along toward second.

The little hitter stopped at first, and as each successive hitter made contact and followed her, she kept shuttling around the bases, until, after she crossed home, she headed back to first base, where she was detoured by the coach and told she could sit down.

She stopped to confer with her cheering fans, a big smile on her face, not realizing that she had driven her coach’s pitch on such a lovely, perfect line.

And when the fans complimented her accomplishment, she said, almost nonchalant and almost blushing, “I was looking the other way.”

So it was the other night that a game in the Simpsonville Recreation Department Tee-Ball League continued to train our future major-leaguers.

OK, maybe that should be training some kids to move up to the next level, but we can dream, can’t we, as we watch this group of unaffected kids learn a game that has absorbed so many generations of us.

And learning it, they are, to be sure, as in how to hold the bat, where to stand at the plate and which base is first and how to get there. A GPS would help some of them.

These aren’t “real” games – no outs are recorded, a half inning ends when every one of the 15 or so players has batted, and the umpire’s role is not to call balls and strikes but to place the tee and encourage the hitters – but you wouldn’t know all of that simply by looking.

The uniforms and equipment definitely make it look real, and some players actually are focused on the ball in play and not the pile of sand in hand (that’s a close one).

And, although this is not your older brother’s tee-ball league, in which they set up the tee, positioned all the  players correctly and tried to get outs by throwing the ball to bases, it is challenging: Each hitter gets three pitches from his/her coach at which to swing – thus the heroics of the little line-drive hitter – before the tee is brought into place for unlimited cuts until contact.

Even the diamond is real, with a backstop and bases, some stands for fans and even a little box for an official scorer, as if that would be a necessity. Everything is a hit, everyone scores, and there’s no reason to count errors, walks or number of pitches thrown (except the coach’s arm may suggest there is a need).

Yes, the baseball may be different, but this remains a field of dreams, tucked in a corner of the old school complex where decades ago neighborhood kids would gather and practice this game in a much less formal but ever-so-ardent form.

Only in those days, there were no amenities. The bases were rocks, and you batted away from the school and toward the houses, which gave you a home-run fence but also required, because of that fence’s proximity in right field, that all hits go to center or left field. Otherwise, you were out.

As many boys and sometimes girls of about 6-12 years old as could be found would gather there day after day and play all morning and then all afternoon,  choosing sides by the age-old practice of the two best players “climbing the bat” to see who got first pick.

It was a great little field, because you didn’t have to chase long hits, and the infield was completely sand (like a big diamond), only with manageable measurements.

The players didn’t throw hard and try to strike out each other, because there was no catching equipment, and usually a waiting batter would have to chase down each errant or missed pitches. It was more like organized batting practice, perfect for a left-handed-hitting boy hampered by the right-field rule to gain experience batting right handed in his dream of becoming a Mickey Mantle-quality switch hitter.

Occasionally George Wagner, the minister at the Christian church who lived just beyond the fence in center field, would come out and pitch to both teams, giving them smoother offerings, availing another position player and deliver some sermons of coaching – and save a lot of arguments along the way.

But that was the way boys used to learn to play ball, like in the movie Sandlot, hoping to have one good baseball with which as many kids as possible could play all day under summer skies that never seemed too hot to handle.

Yes, that was the field where the tee-ball league now sits, where the little players are being introduced to baseball by real coaching from many people, where they wear helmets and catcher’s gear and uniforms with shirts and pants and socks.

They all want to learn just like those boys of old, and the girls are equal parts of the teams, often larger, faster and more competitive than the boys. And sometimes not.

Now one of those boys who used to play on that flat corner of the schoolyard can sit in its familiarity, close his eyes and dream of how the games there used to be.

Or he can open them and see that little girl, her head turned one way, the bat going the other and the ball shooting as it was ordained to be right past third base.

He could stand and cheer because he knows the thrill and knows the game, learned on that same little patch of sand, his field of dreams.