John F. Russell: Playing the game we love

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John Russell

John Russell's sports column appears Sundays in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 871-4209 or email jrussell@SteamboatToday.com.

Find more columns by John here.

— The sun beat down on the dusty baseball field at Steamboat Springs Middle School late Wednesday afternoon, but the group of young players practicing didn’t seem to mind the heat.

As they streaked around the base paths and worked on their base running skills, it took me back to a time, not so long ago, when my summers were filled with the game of baseball.

That was a time when my friends and I would spend an entire day playing “pickle” in my parents’ front yard and play pickup games in a nearby park using an extra glove, rock or even a tree for first base.

The times have changed, but for the most part the appeal of baseball remains unchanged.

The sound of a bat smacking a ball, or the thud of a ball landing in the catcher’s glove and the sight of children enjoying a game with no winners and no losers still brings a warm feeling to my heart.

In today’s world, young players spend their summers at baseball camps developing their skills under the watchful eyes of a coach. Teams spend entire summers traveling across the state and country to compete in organized games, and the players’ goals reach well beyond the left-field fence to a future playing at the college or the professional level.

We see it on a weekly basis in Steamboat Springs thanks to a long line of Triple Crown tournaments that bring thousands of visitors to our mountain town each summer. Watching some of the games, it is easy to see how the game has changed in the past few decades. I’ve witnessed parents pushing their children to excel, coaches inspired by the idea of producing the game’s next big star and a game normally filled with fun overshadowed by the goal of simply winning.

I guess that’s what happens when you hand-pick teams, you play an extended schedule every summer and your family shells out big bucks, not to mention those hard-earned vacation days, to follow a dream. It’s easy to see how expectations change, and the purpose of the game can shift.

The truth is that most of these young players will never make it to the major leagues, and I’m not sure it’s the best way to plan for college.

In most cases, these athletes will play for a few years, imagining what it would be like to reach the next level and someday move on with life.

They came to the field to learn how to play a game. They will leave with life-long friends and knowledge of what it’s like to be a part of something bigger than themselves.

Who knows, someday some of these players might end up standing on the side of a field watching their own children play the game they love. In that moment, they will discover that the real meaning of baseball doesn’t come from winning. It comes in the sound of a bat hitting a ball, the smell of a leather glove and the sight of children playing a game we all love.

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