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Bosco’s Corner: Street ball all but gone for good

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The first column I ever wrote for this newspaper — back when cell phones were the size of bricks — focused on the apparent disappearance of street baseball from the communities of Queens. And now these many years later, I am sad to say that the sport I was brought up on is all but extinct.

Like looking for the Tasmanian Tiger in the Australian outback, finding a group of kids playing street ball in Queens is almost impossible. It may still exist, like that ferocious canine from Down Under, but damned if I can find it.

When I was growing up in Maspeth, every weekend was the World Series on my corner. A team of kids near my own age would take on the older kids in the neighborhood every Saturday for the bragging rights of 69th Place.

A telephone pole was our backstop and a white-painted sewer was our first base. The front porch of a house in straight-away center was an automatic home run and if the ball hit a tree, it was a do-over.

It didn’t matter that our team outnumbered the older kids 3-to-1 and it didn’t matter that the concrete ball field was strictly a left-handed hitter’s park. What mattered was that my team always lost. We just could not beat that team of older kids, no matter what we did.

Every Saturday was a new lesson in humility for me and my teammates. But it never dampened my desire to play.

Such sentiments seem to be fading into memory. I know that Little League registration, as well as enrollment in local soccer and basketball programs, hasn’t really waned in the last couple of years. But if you’re a sports fan and a city kid like me, you don’t see or hear it on the streets anymore.

Perhaps the only sport still played frequently on the street — or school yard — is basketball. Though I see stickball from time to time, it is basketball that is keeping street ball alive more than anything else. Still, sitings are infrequent, on par I’d say with the albino tiger in the wild of southeast Asia.

No matter which sport was played on the street, whether it was basketball, baseball or football, street ball has been an intricate part in the development of many major league ballplayers from Queens.

When I first started working for the paper, Dave Valle, then a catcher with the Seattle Mariners, came back to his native Queens to film a segment for “This Week in Baseball.” He didn’t take the camera crew back to his high school, Holy Cross, or the Little League fields named after his father in Crocheron Park, he took them and teammates Harold Reynolds and Darnell Coles to the stickball fields at Bayside High School.

That’s what was most important to him to get across. That’s what stood out for him from his youth.

Like Valle, I remember my street ball days more than my days playing organized ball, which I did. I’ll never forget the time I hit five consecutive home runs playing stickball in the schoolyard at PS 41 in Bayside, or the time I stole home plate to win a game back in Maspeth.

And as the seasons changed, my friends and I continued our pursuit of the sporting life. Football was also big in Maspeth back then, as was roller hockey — all without the benefit of adults telling us what to do. We were just kids playing pickup games in the street. And no matter how hard it rained, how cold it got, or how much snow had fallen, nothing could keep us indoors.

Some kids these days would rather stay inside on perfectly sunny summer days watching MTV, surfing the Internet or playing video games than play a simple game of catch. Other children are forced into playing organized sports by overzealous parents determined to have their dreams fulfilled, if not by themselves, than by their off-spring.

And sometimes, Little League is used as a babysitter, a place where a parent can drop off a child for an hour or two and get some shopping done.

I don’t want this to be a blanket indictment of Little Leagues everywhere. There are many kids who live and die for their Little League teams, and, believe it or not, there are also some who are going through the motions.

But when you played street ball, that’s always what you wanted to be doing. No coaches, no pressure, no fees, no umpires, just fun.

When my family and I moved from Maspeth to Bayside in 1980, I was pleased to see that, like in Maspeth, street ball was a way of life here. I don’t think there is a sport I didn’t play with my friends when I moved to Bayside, be it football in the street, basketball and stickball in the playground and even tennis, which was played on a makeshift court on the street in front of my house.

School is just about over and children will soon have the run of the streets with summer vacation all but here. I wish I had the opportunity to hang around all day and play baseball again like I did when I was 10. But as I look around today, the streets are quiet and children, it would seem, have other things to do.

I guess I’d have no one to play with.

Reach Sports Editor Anthony Bosco by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 130.

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