EDMOND, Okla. (AP) - Wearing a fluorescent orange shirt that rivaled the vibrancy of the pink cast on his left arm, Kaden Twyman marched to the plate with a bat held only in his right hand.
After watching a couple pitches and missing a couple more, the 9-year-old clubbed the ball across the infield.
Boys in blue shirts and white pants and red shoes and blue hats and black shorts and red hats scrambled after it.
All the while, no coaches screamed from the dugouts, no umpires worked the bases, no parents signaled from the coaching boxes. Truth is, there were no adults on the field at all.
It was glorious.
The Oklahoman reports that This summer, Tuesday nights at a raggedy field in northwest Edmond have provided a doorway to yesteryear. It’s like taking a time machine to an era when children played ball on their own and sandlots became an oasis of dreams.
Welcome to Unorganized Baseball.
What began with one dad’s desire to give baseball-loving boys a chance to recapture the innocence of the game has spread like wildfire. So many boys were interested in playing that the number had to be capped around two dozen. A few kids who were 12 and 13 even showed up and had to be told they were too old to play but just the right age to umpire.
Even on a diamond with a slightly sunken infield and bases tilting inward, it’s easy to see why the kids flock to the field off Kelly Avenue and Main Street.
“It’s just fun,” Kaden said.
That is music to David Murrell’s ears.
Earlier this summer while watching his oldest play ball, the father of six couldn’t help but notice what the younger siblings did during games. They’d gather together on a vacant field or an open patch of grass and start their own game.
Nobody telling them what to do. Nobody yelling at them.
“They’re just doing it,” Murrell said. “And they’re just having a ball.”
The scene reminded him of a story that he read a few years back in The New York Times. It talked about how youth sports were becoming more organized. Better uniforms. Longer seasons. Farther travel.
But it asked if adults had gotten too involved.
Have grown-ups taken over kids’ games?
You don’t have to watch kids playing organized sports for very long to realize that many adults suck the fun right out of them. A strikeout can lead to tears. A loss can cause a full-blown meltdown. Lots of times, it’s because the kids know that mom or dad or coach will be disappointed. Or mad. Or angry.
Maybe even furious.
“Baseball, it’s a kids’ game,” Murrell said. “Over the years, we’ve made it an adult game.”
He wondered what would happen if the game was given back to the kids. He went to the kids on the competitive team that he coaches, the Prospects, and asked them if they’d be interested in playing a couple sandlot-style games.
No coaching. No parenting.
“That’d be awesome,” they said. “Let’s do it.”
With a core of players in place, Murrell shared his idea about Unorganized Baseball on social media and on OklahomaBall.com, a website where lots of local coaches post information.
Former neighbor and fellow coach Shane Doughty was among the first to respond. His team, Ignite, was just getting ready to finish its five-month, 55-game season. Four or five boys from the team wanted to play Unorganized Baseball.
“The boys like playing ball,” he said.
Gary Twyman, who helps coach Ignite, said, “We’re pretty hard on them during the season.”
Doughty said, “This just lets ‘em play.”
Unless someone needs first aid for a scrape or cut - it can happen on a field that features, among other things, a square concrete slab about three steps off third base - the only adult supervision comes at the very beginning of the evening. A parent picks captains, oftentimes using a couple baseball trivia questions to determine the lucky two.
Once that’s done, the boys do the rest. They pick teams, determine batting order and set lineups.
None of the adults are quite sure of the methodology; it’s the boys‘ game to manage. They’ll rotate positions. They’ll have a new pitcher and catcher every inning, if not more often. They’ll figure it out.
“Which is kind of the point,” Murrell said.
Doughty said, “I thought there would be a lot more arguing. There really hasn’t been.”
The biggest issue, frankly, has been the parents, and the parents are the first to admit it. Early on, especially the first week, the adults were cheering and yelling. It was largely encouraging and mostly positive. It was moms and dads being moms and dads.
“Can you ask ‘em not to cheer?” they said. “We just want to play ball.”
Murrell took the boys‘ message to the parents, and as the weeks have gone on, the adults have mellowed. They have realized they can save their cheers for competitive games. Cheering during Unorganized Baseball would be like cheering while watching the kids play video games or board games at home.
It’s just for fun; they can stand down.
Not that it’s always easy to hold back. Even Murrell finds himself getting caught up in what’s happening on the field from time to time.
“Oh, he was safe!” he yelled one Tuesday night earlier this month. “Owen, you gotta be quick!”
Then, he caught himself.
“See,” he exclaimed, “it’s really hard!”
But it’s worth it to see the kids’ reactions. They smile bigger. They cheer louder. They celebrate longer.
The angst is diminished.
The joy is magnified.
A week or so ago, Ryan Chidester got to be one of the captains, and after sides were picked, the 9-year-old assigned positions to his players.
One of the kids stopped him.
“I’ve never played third base,” he said.
“Well, you are now,” Ryan said. “Don’t worry - it’s just fun.”
He admitted after the game that he was a little nervous to be the captain.
“But everyone is real nice,” he said, “and they are all wanting to play.”
The boys might stay and play all night if the field had lights.
Unorganized Baseball has been such a hit that there’s talk of not only doing it again next summer but also adding a night for boys who are a little older.
Maybe a sandlot game shouldn’t be celebrated. Maybe it’s a sad commentary on the state of youth sports when children just playing baseball for fun draws so much attention and feels so profound. And yet, you don’t think about such things while watching them.
You just have fun.
That’s how it was when Kaden Twyman, the boy with the cast, hit that ball. A few moments later when he took one last long stride and stepped on home plate, he grinned wide.
As he watched from his pop chair near the dugout, Murrell smiled, too.
“It’s almost magical.”
Information from: The Oklahoman, https://www.newsok.com
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