SAG HARBOR, N.Y. — It was right there, a two-dollar hot dog. It turned on a small electric grill, plugged into an extension cord that ran up the steps of a green wooden grandstand, where spectators had to step over it. The hot dog was nothing you wanted to eat in its slick browned casing, but the idea of it was enough: a two-dollar hot dog. The best part was it was far from the cheapest thing available. The potato chips were 50 cents. Then there was the baseball. That was free.
In the dead days of summer, you can develop strange little obsessions. Sleepy-eyed and salt-baked, moving as slowly as that hot dog on the coil, you find yourself in an aluminum bleacher watching summer league college baseball just because it’s there and free, and you can’t remember the last time you went to a ballpark and didn’t have to dig in your wallet for $20 bills. Pretty soon you’re mesmerized, even though there are no names on the backs of the jerseys and it’s hard to make out the announcer who murmurs into a microphone that buzzes through a portable speaker, which is plugged into the same outlet as the grill.
There’s no roster sheet, not even a scoreboard, so you have to keep track of things in your head. Still, pretty soon a loyalty grows and you mark your favorites. There’s the kid who bats left-handed and has the funny twitch in his leg at the plate who you name Elvis. You can’t wait for him to come around in the order again, with his “Don’t Be Cruel” jig at the plate.
The dugout is just a little wooden shack no bigger than a garden shed with a couple of Igloo coolers. It’s surrounded by a small picket fence at which children cluster and stare at the big boys, who wink at them. The little boys wear caps that are too big, the rims settling down over their ears and the bills swallowing their triangular faces. It’s easier to learn the names of the kids than the names of the players because their parents are always calling to them: “Dylan, get over here,” and “Theo, get your fingers out of the fence.”
The fathers stand around with their arms crossed, talking about T-ball games. “Did you win?” one asks. “No,” another replies grimly. “But we’ll see that team again when they’re 12.”
The college boys, like you, are just here for the summer, playing in one of a dozen wooden-bat summer leagues sponsored by Major League Baseball around the country: the Cal Ripken League, the Great Lakes League, the Valley League, the Cape Cod League, the Southern Collegiate. Some of the players come in from name programs, like Oklahoma State or Georgia Tech, and some come from smaller colleges, but they all get paid alike: nothing. They board with local families and play ball to stay in shape for a few weeks, and then they go off and you never see them again. “Here Today, Stars Tomorrow” is the slogan of the Hamptons Collegiate League, but the reality is that just 20 or so of the players will get drafted and ever play ball for contract money.
They wear jerseys with the names of little farming towns or beachside villages or old whaling ports. A sign at the local gas station is the best way to find out when the Sag Harbor Whalers’ next game is. Their home field is just a public park with an American flag wedged into the chain link fence, where local retirees and summer tourists sit in the metal bleachers or draw their cars right up to the outfield and sit on the hoods. But the best seat is your camp chair, propped on the lawn right behind the backstop, where you can see the movement of the pitches and the haunches of the batters and study their still-young faces, some of them trying to look older with the beginnings of Bryce Harper beards.
It’s easy to come away with a ball as a souvenir because the park is so small that when a pitch is fouled off, it flies into the parking lot and threatens to bust someone’s windshield. The children, one little girl among them in a blue sundress, chase the fouls with large brown mitts flopping on their thin wrists.
About halfway through each game, a couple of players leave the dugout shed and circulate through the crowd of 75 or so, with their caps in their hands, soliciting. “Would you like to make a donation to support the league?” they ask. A few single dollar bills flutter into their caps.
You dig out your wallet, hypnotized by the simplicity of the park ringed by young oaks and beeches that the lowering sunlight turns into paintings and the wood-block tenor of bat on ball and the children with summer-bleached hair flying like corn silk. It’s been a while since you watched a brand of baseball in which the batboys are really . . . boys.
It’s a bad time for purists who long for a yesteryear that never was. With murdering football players and backstabbing NBAers and the gun-brandishing reality-TV baseball wives, sometimes you feel the need to rinse and spit.
You drop a $20 bill in.
“Oh, wow,” the kid says, appreciatively.
When the game ends, the little boys circle the big ones, who sign their baseballs with cheap ballpoint pens and show them tricks, like how to roll a ball up their forearms. One of the ballplayers sees three young women standing in a cluster. “Hey, you came!” he says. The boy named Theo watches the players carefully and pantomimes a motion that fascinates him: the powerful shoulder turn of an infielder as he fires the ball to first.
In the grass behind the concession stand, a game of stickball has broken out among the children. Off in the distance on another field, another group of ballplayers, older men with bellies and gimpy knees, takes the field for a slow pitch game of softball — picnic ball.
The college boys strip off their jerseys and walk back into the infield. They grab rakes and begin raking the base paths, empty the coolers and hose them out and collect garbage and carry it to a bin. It’s part of the deal: In exchange for summer ball, they have to take care of the field they play on.
For Sally Jenkins’s previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.