The name carries with it a sense of opportunity and promise, a spiritedness that accompanies America’s pastime. Freedom Field. Nestled in a quiet neighborhood at our local sports park, the turf field features a tranquil Northwest backdrop, with evergreens towering beyond the outfield, a cluster of bright green alders poised gracefully in front of them, an American flag in center, and a lighted scoreboard a little to its left. Lights surround the field, too, slowly coming to life for the week’s 7 o’clock games. The sports park is complete with a skate park, snack shack and announcer’s booth.
By Monday night, 47 twelve-year-olds on eight Little League teams in our community will have played their last regular-season games there.
It’s the place all the young boys aspired to play when they started off their careers in Tee Ball. They practiced and played at various neighborhood venues—one obscure park was tucked back so far that no one even knew it existed. As they moved up through the years, from Rookies 1 and 2 to Farm and Minors, the locations changed, each level taking the boys to a different elementary school. Every season, though, they’d look forward to playing at least one game at Freedom—it has always symbolized the Big Leagues to them. As the home field of the Majors division, they now proudly play there three times a week. It has become the quintessential community gathering place, as we ask “Heading down to Freedom tonight?” or meet up to watch a neighbor’s son play and order a Freedom burger. It is a beloved springtime hangout where families and friends take in a ball game and socialize, support, connect and catch up.
Some of these boys have been friends since preschool; they now walk the halls of middle school together. They are competitors on the field and the best of buds off of it. They ride the school bus together and sit next to each other in band; they zing fastballs across the plate and smash homeruns over the outfield fence.
As parents, we also share a common experience. We wince as foul balls pop into the parking lot, waiting for the ‘crash’ atop some poor soul’s car. We hold our breath a little as one of our boys gets hit by a pitch or clutches his arm or leg after a base running or sliding mishap. We huddle under tarps during downpours. We talk hit vs. error in scorekeeping, discuss the latest book we’ve read, grumble about the sixth grade history assignment. Dads pace. Moms chit-chat.
But some of my favorite memories at Freedom are not just about baseball. They’re the moments between games, or after. When a sea of red, royal blue, black, gold, navy and orange crowds behind the backstop or meanders along the skate park to enjoy a game of flyers up or pickle behind right field. A colorful medley of friends from all teams, hanging out, playing wall ball, eating burgers at the picnic tables, sitting in the stands to watch another game.
A few Thursday nights ago while we were driving down to a friend’s game, my son said, “I don’t want Little League to be over.” I agreed. The realization that it is drawing to a close seemed to hit him. And I don’t think he was just talking about the games. I think it was also that sense of community and togetherness.
Sure, baseball will continue. They’ll have a couple post-season tournaments. Some will go on to play All Stars, Select or Intermediate. But as twelve-year-olds, this will soon be it for them as far as what they’ve known: the 46’ pitching distance, 60’ base paths and 200’ homerun fences. Their days at Freedom—their field— will be a thing of the past. Another rung on the ladder of their growing-up years. Another reminder of how fast it all goes.
My favorite author, Harlan Coben said it best when he shared these words with the crowd when he was inducted into the Little League Hall of Excellence before the start of the 2013 Little League Baseball World Series Championship game. “I don’t remember my stats. I don’t remember my batting average. I don’t remember wins and losses,” he said. “But I remember my parents in those stands, and that, my young friends, is the memory I hope you cherish above all else.”
I agree with him fully. But I’d like to take it a step further.
I hope they remember the wall ball. I hope they remember eating cheeseburgers and drinking Gatorade on the picnic tables outside the skate park on a sunny afternoon. I hope they remember trying to out-scramble each other for foul balls just to get a free 25-cent candy from the snack shack.
But mostly, I hope they remember—and cherish— that sea of friends that moved like a pack around their field, Freedom Field.
Balls in. Coming down.
So long, Freedom Field.
You hold a special place in the hearts of these twelves.