Another post from a few years ago…
Soon in Downers Grove, Washington Park will reopen. It has been closed for the past fifteen months in order to create vast retention ponds to manage the excessive storm water runoff in the surrounding neighborhood. Before Washington Park was designated as a site for storm water reclamation, there was a lot of discussion about what would be the site’s best use. Should it remain a park? Should it become a pool? How would any choice affect the neighborhood, the Village, the tax base?
Perhaps overlooked, Washington Park is a neighborhood park. It’s not as large as some of our other parks such as McCullom or Doerhoffer, but it’s big enough to contain a parking lot, playlot, and a sports field – not to mention infinite dreams and memories. The general configuration of the park will be much the same as it was prior to the project, but upon completion, the playground and the baseball field will be gloriously improved.
That baseball field. At this point in construction, the outfield is occupied by an oversized, abandoned digger, but it should be clear to anyone driving past that the field is going to be something spectacular. The ballpark reopening is an event of immense anticipation in my house. Before Washington Park closed for construction, and the last rubber cleat stomped triumphantly on home plate, my husband and our boys called it “their field.” Many times they set out to play at Washington only to find it occupied by the girls’ softball league, or another family playing, but more often it was open, waiting for the next group of kids and their big league dreams to drop their equipment behind the backstop and take the field.
It has been said that in our modern world, a good, kids-only game of pick-up baseball is nearly impossible to find, and that is indisputable. But in our family, the biggest kid is my husband, so there’s no need to find a pick-up game. My husband creates one. He has yet to outgrow that childhood urge to hit the field with a ball, bat and glove, waiting for friends to show up to play. Time passes and a few things have necessarily changed. As an adult, to get to the ballpark, he no longer lurches across town on his Schwinn, wearing his glove for a bike helmet. These days, my husband loads his equipment and our two young boys into the mini-van – his teammates.
And so there they are, my two little boys and their dad, still a boy at heart – throwing fast balls and change-ups; calculating the trajectory of high flies for easy outs; clinching their bats, digging in their heels and pointing their shoulders to the outfield, keeping their chins high and waiting for the right pitch; rounding the bases quick as licks. Their dad alternates between player and coach, gently explaining the finer points of technique to any kid who happens to make it to the field that day. It’s a pick-up game, but so much more.
Whether a park is simple, as Washington Park was years ago, before the former elementary school building was razed and neighborhood kids played on the playground when school was out; elaborate, as it was prior to this current project; or deluxe, with a cherry on top as it’ll be when construction is finally complete and the park re-opens, it makes no real difference to children who play baseball there. It may be more glamorous to sit in a concrete dugout than on a galvanized metal bench tucked behind a makeshift backstop, but the game is still the same. In essence, it’s a simple game, comfortable and familiar, like vanilla ice cream or mashed potatoes. It’s beautiful because of its simplicity and in spite of what grown-ups and construction crews do to improve it; and crossing home plate feels just as exhilarating in a new ballpark as it does on a grass field with a trash-can-lid home plate. The milestones and victories are just as sweet.
I watch proudly as my little boys grow increasingly mature playing this sport, their self-esteem growing more positive with every good play, and their character built with those less brilliant. It isn’t the bells and whistles of a particular ballpark that matter, the importance lies in the dreams and imaginations of the children who play there.
So while the Persons Who Are in Charge of These Things sort out their contracts and revised timelines, my boys will continue to play in the backyard and on other fields, and will wait impatiently for Washington Park’s reopening so they can play again on the field they consider their own – a field that will be elaborate in design, but where the simplicity of the game of baseball and the lyrical dreams of children will still be the rule.