Finally got to see the 1993 movie “Sandlot” after all these years, which is really surprising since I will watch any baseball movie — good or bad — anytime, anywhere or with just about anybody. So if you’ve seen “Sandlot,” you know this is a very good baseball movie. In fact it’s a wonderful baseball movie, even if it’s not in the same league with “A League of their Own.” But then, few movies of any genre are.

As it does for anybody over the age of 40 who watches it, “Sandlot” brought back a flood of memories for me. For me it was about really living your life and not watching it all pass along while you wait to make a left on to (or even across) South Mechanic Street from the Times-News parking lot.

I thought a lot about “Sandlot,” which takes place in 1962, while I was waiting to turn on to Mechanic Street Wednesday. In fact, I wrote this entire column while I was sitting there in my car on my way to watch the Orioles-Athletics game. And I remembered how perfect it was to love baseball then, when we played ball all day long, and when there were afternoon big-league ballgames on any given day of the week.

That’s what was one of the many great things about having Mr. Harold Conrad as our sixth-grade teacher at Johnson Heights Elementary School. The World Series was played during the day then (matter of fact, this World Series would be the last World Series without any night games) and Mr. Conrad, for some reason, had a cable TV hook-up in his classroom.

Mr. Conrad was one of only three male teachers in the building then, so he understood. But he was also our teacher, so he really understood, telling us unless everybody had their assignments completed we would not be watching any of the World Series. And for some reason, he emphasized everybody as he looked at my pals Kevin Royce and Doug Wade ... and me.

Since most sixth-grade girls didn’t give a hoot about baseball in those days, but always had their work done anyway, we knew precisely who Mr. Conrad meant when he said “everybody.” But since this was 1970, and the World Series was quickly becoming The Brooks Robinson Show, Mr. Conrad knew everybody — that would be Royce, Wade and Burke — would have their assignments completed. And we did. Believe me, he checked before the button on that little black-and-white television he brought from home went “click.”

So who needed a transistor radio to sneak listens of the Series when we had Mr. Conrad for our teacher? Heck, all we had to do was do our work ... What a concept.

I thought about these times for the first time in a long time after I watched “Sandlot,” and how I feel for any kid today who would watch it and say, “What are they doing? Why are they playing baseball by themselves? Where are the uniforms? Couldn’t they get into a league? They won’t get a trophy.”

Don’t misunderstand. Once we signed up to play little league, the uniforms were a big deal. Looking back on it now, we didn’t look big league, but we sure did feel big league. And if you were good enough to win a trophy, rather than have one handed to you for just showing up, sure, that was important, too; which is why we will always be grateful to the great men of the Dapper Dan Club of Allegany County.

Even when we were in little league, though, we still played on our own — unquestionably more than we did when we had the uniforms on. So thank goodness we didn’t have the options kids have today. Thank goodness we didn’t have any options at all, because our parents wouldn’t let us stay in the house if it wasn’t raining, snowing or below 20 degrees.

In the 1960s, I’d say, at most, only half of the mothers in our neighborhood worked; but since my mother was a school teacher, she was home during the summer. Yet that didn’t make her any different from any of the other moms in the sense that I would be allowed in the house on a summer day other than to eat or use the bathroom. After that, for all of us, it was, “Out you go, and out you stay until I call you.”

(No cell phones then either, by the way. God, I’m old.)

If we weren’t having so much fun, it was the type of thing we might have taken personally. But we were too busy playing ball to take anything personally.

Before Cumberland became The City That Hates Its Kids, there were ballfields and playgrounds everywhere. Within walking distance from my house there were always games at Fort Hill, Washington Junior High, vacant lots, Penn Avenue ballfield and playground, Virginia Avenue playground, Mapleside playground, St. Mary’s playground, Constitution Park, and our home base, the Johnson Heights playground.

We went to every cost to avoid Johnson Heights from September through early June, Monday through Friday, from 9 o’clock in the morning until 3:30 in the afternoon. But once school was out for the day, or for the summer, that’s where we could usually be found — if we weren’t at Brown’s Store buying baseballs or baseball cards, playing pinball, having a cherry blend, or being run off by Mr. Brown, who called everybody under the age of 30 “damn hippies.”

It was on those playgrounds and fields where we found out about ourselves: who the best ballplayers were, who the toughest guys were, who the leaders were, and who we were going to follow if we ever got into a pinch together (which we did whenever a window was broken ... a ball going through a pane of glass was our biggest fear, not a ball-eating dog behind a fence).

Most of all, it was on those playgrounds and fields where we found each other and grew together, making friendships that are stronger today than they were then — because of then.

If we see somebody from Johnson Heights for the first time in 25 years, as we often do, we simply pick up just where we left off before we went our separate ways.

They were the best times of our lives.

OK, so maybe this isn’t a dozen-roses Mother’s Day column, but if you were a kid on the sandlot in those days, you know what I mean. You know how it was. You miss it, and you wouldn’t trade a moment of it all for anything in the world.

So to all the Moms out there who ran the households, particularly my sainted mother, thank you for making us stay outside to play ball. Most importantly, thank you for your trust. And once we did have uniforms? Thank you for making sure we all got to our games so we would have a place to be seen wearing them.

We may have been products of the sandlot, but you sure made us feel big league.

Happy Mothers Day!

We love you.

Hey, let’s go outside and play some ball!

Mike Burke is sports editor of the Cumberland Times-News. Contact Mike Burke at mburke@times-news.com.

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