In spring, all eyes turn to the diamond


It has arrived. Baseball’s opening day.

When I was a kid growing up in Queens, this greatly anticipated moment was my reassurance that all was well with the world. Coinciding with the coming of warm spring weather and the sale of the new season’s edition of baseball cards, it focused the attention of my friends — whether Dodgers, Yankees or Giants fans — first on the upcoming pennant races, and then on the World Series.

This was the golden age of baseball in New York. During the 11 seasons from 1947 to 1957, the Yankees won nine pennants; my team, the Dodgers, six; and the Giants, two. In every year but one, there was at least one New York team in the World Series, and both teams in the fall classic were from New York eight times.

As far as we were concerned, baseball was New York, and New York was baseball. There was nothing like going to Ebbets Field, Yankee Stadium or the Polo Grounds and being struck by the colors of bright green grass, white baselines and players’ uniforms that were so intense compared with what we saw on our 12-inch black-and-white television screens. No other sport during that era generated such attention. The football Giants often played before a lot of empty seats in the Polo Grounds, and the Knicks actually played NBA championship games in a National Guard Armory because the circus was using Madison Square Garden.

Because there was no grass anywhere in our Sunnyside neighborhood, we adapted with our baseball simulations of stickball, curb ball, stoop ball and punchball or softball on the concrete field in the nearby city park. When we reached age 11, we formed our own team, enrolled it in the PAL and took the Queens 7 line train to Flushing Meadow, which had grass fields. The team’s equipment consisted of two bats and a catcher’s mask. Batting helmets were nonexistent, as were parents, or any adults at all. We were on our own. And if we lost or played badly, there was no one to console us.

Much had changed, of course, by the time my son, Sean, started playing Little League ball at Seaman’s Neck Park in Seaford in the late 1970s: There were Opening Day parades, grass fields, uniforms, umpires, adult coaches, team batting helmets and stands filled with parents, grandparents and neighbors. That was all new to me, but made for great memories.

I really noticed the differences when, starting in 2013, my grandson Jack began playing, first in the Wantagh Little League and then on Long Island travel teams, including the Chiefs and Titans. The changes that struck me most were the equipment — individual batting helmets and customized bats — and the level of play — 11- and 12-year-olds routinely turning double plays and catching high fly balls. What was unchanged was the level of family support and community enthusiasm, with no Bad News Bears adult tantrums or boorishness.

Travel team baseball was a whole new experience. Not just the higher level of skill, but playing across Long Island and traveling to tournaments in upstate Cooperstown as well as Connecticut, Maryland and even South Carolina. At every destination, the Long Island kids played well and distinguished themselves.

Now a new baseball season is upon us, from Little League to the major leagues. Much has changed over the years. The Dodgers and Giants abandoned us for California over six decades ago. Major League Baseball, which at one time never played west of St. Louis, has expanded from two eight-team leagues to 30 teams and six divisions, and plays regular-season games in Asia and Europe. There has been a diffusion of intense fan interest beyond baseball to the NFL, NBA and NHL. And there is now an overlap of sports seasons, with the NBA and NHL cutting into months of the baseball schedule.

At the local level, the travel team phenomenon draws away from Little League and high school play. Still, baseball remains strong in New York, with the Mets and Yankees, and especially on Long Island, with our outstanding facilities and, most important, supportive families and communities. I know I’m still enthused and ready.

Play ball!

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