Peter King

The priceless community tradition that is baseball


Baseball is back. Spring training is over. Opening Day is here. In a world of chaos and danger, baseball, to me, is the one constant, my trusted safety zone.
It’s always been this way — from my days growing up in Queens and rooting for the Brooklyn Dodgers, to watching my son Sean playing Little League ball in Seaford, and then my grandson Jack playing Little League in Wantagh, and travel ball in Massapequa and all over Long Island — even out of state.
Watching the boys play on local fields was as exciting — sometimes more so — as watching the Dodgers at Ebbets Field or the Mets at the Polo Grounds, Shea Stadium or CitiField. Contrary to the “Bad News Bears” images of screaming coaches and hysterical parents, the tone and attitude of youth baseball were always enthusiastic and uplifting.
My wife, Rosemary, and I enjoyed going to our son’s and grandson’s games and being with the parents, family members and friends of the other players. There was a genuine spirit of camaraderie and community involvement. (Even Rosemary, who has no interest in baseball and wouldn’t go to a major league game if I paid her, never missed an inning of Sean’s or Jack’s games.) As someone who grew up in Sunnyside, Queens, which didn’t have a blade of grass where kids could play, I was always impressed by the first-class athletic facilities available for youth sports on Long Island, particularly in the Town of Hempstead.
I realize that baseball has to compete with football, basketball, soccer and hockey for attention, and I don’t begrudge those sports. But baseball will always rank highest with me. It requires great skills. Hitting against a pitcher throwing blazing fastballs and sharp-breaking curveballs, and having to make a split-second decision on whether the pitch is in the strike zone and whether or not to swing, is as difficult to do as anything in any sport. There’s also the strategy that baseball requires, such as matching certain pitchers against certain batters in certain situations, and whether to bunt, hit-and-run or go for the long ball.

Baseball’s more thoughtful pace and the anticipation of what will happen next creates tension and excitement among players and fans. The game also encourages generational interest.
My fondest childhood memories are of my father taking my brother, Kevin, and me to Dodgers games at Ebbets Field. Sean and I still enjoy going to Mets games at CitiField, where we get absorbed in the game we’re watching and reminisce about games and players from years gone by. Similarly, Jack, who went to many Mets games with me, including spring training games in Florida, and now lives in North Carolina, constantly texts me about how the Mets are doing and how it looks for the upcoming season. And it doesn’t have to be major league baseball. The three of us always enjoyed watching the Long Island Ducks, in Central Islip, and the Brooklyn Cyclones, in Coney Island.
During my years in elective office as town councilman, Nassau County comptroller and congressman, it was always a highlight to take part in Little League parades and Opening Day ceremonies. Those events were always very well attended and festive.
One concern I have now is the decline we are seeing in Little League membership, as so many kids opt for travel baseball, which is much more expensive and has less community focus than Little League ball. If this trend continues, kids whose families can’t afford travel ball, or aren’t at that level of talent, could miss the opportunity that my son and grandson, and so many other Long Island kids, have had of playing competitive baseball with kids in their own community on local fields, with their family and friends cheering them on.
But because baseball has survived, and succeeded, and provided so much enjoyment and great memories for so many generations of kids for so many years, I’m hopeful that it will overcome this challenge and emerge stronger and more popular than ever, and remain America’s national pastime. Play ball!

Peter King is a former congressman, and a former chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security.