If you build it, it’d better be a pitch

July 8, 2009

Guelph Mercury, 7/08/09Ballteam

Right in the middle of Ontario’s corn belt, little Wyoming is so flat it seems you could smack a high fly ball to centre field and watch it soar forever.

It’s here in this tiny farming village, right off Broadway Street, you’ll find an increasingly rare sight: Prime green space in the heart of the town that is reserved for baseball diamonds. The soccer pitches, meanwhile, are tucked out on the edge of town, behind the big metal barns on the agricultural society grounds.

That makes Wyoming charmingly out of step with its neighbours in Ontario.

Most municipalities in the province, and indeed, across the country, are increasingly choosing soccer over baseball when it comes time to build or maintain their sports fields. And no wonder: minor league soccer is a growing sport, and minor league baseball simply, and sadly, isn’t.

That was spelled out clearly at a city council meeting this week in Cambridge, where councillors approved without debate a sports field master plan that would plow under old baseball diamonds and replace them with new soccer pitches.

Knock down those chain-link backstops and tear up crooked outfield fences? Flatten the pitcher’s mound and replace the infield with grass?

Plow under so many dreams of the big leagues?

To a baseball fan, that’s heresy. But the city is just looking at numbers. On week nights between 6 and 9 p.m., almost 90 per cent of every soccer field in Cambridge is being used for a game. In that same time slot, baseball diamonds are nearly 60 per cent empty.

So, it should be no surprise that councillors had an easy decision to make. Baseball is out, soccer is in. For cities, that’s a good thing: It’s a more economical sport to provide space for, and cheaper to maintain.

Guelph is no different from Cambridge, and there are calls for similar decisions here. On many weeknights, our baseball diamonds lie quiet and overgrown with weeds, while our soccer pitches are full of running tykes and proud parents.

Guelph Soccer is so swamped with players, it struggles to find enough fields to stage its games on. And the kids keep signing up — registration has grown to more than 5,000 players, more than all the other minor sports combined.

Pushed partly by our changing demographics and changing interests, soccer is becoming Canada’s national game. And that’s not a bad thing. It’s a fine sport and fun to play.

Parents love it because it’s one of the cheapest and one of the most active. It’s also easy for a young child to pick up: the ball is soft, there’s no cardboard-stiff glove to work in, no swing to perfect, fewer complicated rules to learn. If you can stand on two feet, you can start to play.

This isn’t Brooklyn in the 1950s. I don’t know if kids here ever played stickball in the streets, mimicking their big-league heroes, or if baseball ever held youths’ imaginations the way I wish it did. I get that we’re not a society that plays the four big sports anymore. Our pastimes are increasingly varied, and increasingly global.

I don’t begrudge soccer or its players, either. I’m just a little sad at the idea of the sun going down on a sport of hot summer nights, big swings for the fence and fly balls that seem to float on forever.

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