Matthew Keenan

Archive for January, 2016

Sluggers baseball: Old school meets new school (originally published June 2006)

by on Jan.05, 2016, under Uncategorized

There was a time, long ago, when every grade school had its own sandlot baseball

team. And every grade school boy played on it. In the ’60s and ’70s, countless

kids passed the time on summer days playing pickup baseball games. They filled

the lineup with ghost runners and other things passed down from older brothers.

In my western Kansas town, Homerun Derby was the time-honored tradition.


The chain-link fence was about a hundred feet from home and everyone had a

shot to “park it” as we used to say. Back then, we rode bikes to practice and carried

a wood bat signed by Babe Ruth. Never mind that he’d been dead for 30

years. We did other crazy things, like drink water from a garden hose and mow

yards. Seasons lasted 10 games, and after each game you went to Dairy Queen for

a slushie.


But between 1974 and today, something happened to youth baseball. It ceased to

be sandlot. Someone decided baseball had to be serious. That you had to play 40

games and compete in tournaments in cities like Omaha.

Coaches formed premier teams. That meant good players got cherry-picked and

bad players got cut. Every game players were not just competing against their

opponent, they were competing for a roster spot.


Equipment got complicated too. Kids started accumulating things like bat bags and

batting gloves. Coaches followed suit. Neighborhood teams began to go the way of

the dodo bird. And baseball as a sport, not surprisingly, began to suffer. Surveys

reflect that of all the team sports, baseball is losing players faster than any other.


Our Leawood neighborhood was not impervious to all this. So in 2003 through a

set of circumstances I hope to never repeat, I found myself coaching the school

baseball team. And on the day of the Blue Valley sign-ups, four of my best players

got “recruited away” by another coach. That day was one I would like to forget.


So that weekend I sat down with my fourth-grade son Robert and cobbled

together a roster of new players. Experience, and talent level, was not a consideration.

And that summer the Nativity Sluggers, not surprisingly, went 1-11. The

next year we doubled our win total.


Yet, somewhat to my surprise, everyone was having fun. None of the players

knew or cared about our standings. Any my wife reminded me this team would

never have a problem that curses other teams: No rival coach would steal these



And so in spring 2005, something quite unexpected happened. In early March,

while practicing at a neighborhood ball diamond I noticed a boy ride his bike to

the field. He lived nearby. But this was not just any kid.


This was the best pitcher, the best hitter in Nativity Parish school. One of the

four players who abruptly left our team for greener pastures. He also happened to

be my son’s best friend.


As I pitched batting practice he walked to the outfield and started shagging balls.

Later he picked up a bat. Ten minutes later he was still hitting pitches that were

landing in neighboring subdivisions. I quickly learned that he quit his premier

team. In fact, he was not on any team. And so at the end of practice I did what

any good coach at that point: I took him to Sonic. There I ordered the

usual—chili cheese dogs and a Sonic Blast.


When I dropped him off at his house, I played closer: “We have room for another

player if you are interested.” His response was quick. “I’ll play.”


And then one addition became two. Yes, the second best player in the school.

And the Sluggers won games we used to lose. Kids at the bottom of the lineup got

better. Kids at the top got a lot better. Parents came to games in droves and

brought brothers, sisters, neighbors, friends. Like the Royals. Only fewer errors.


And we made many return visits to Sonic.


And no we didn’t play 30 games, we played 15. But when the season was over we

went from worst to almost first in the Blue Valley League. So this summer, I’m

happy to say, that in one city, one neighborhood, sandlot baseball is back.

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Our family Christmas Card, 2015. Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays to all

by on Jan.03, 2016, under Uncategorized

christmas card 2015

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