The South Side Bandits, ready to play.
We’ve been in Little League post-season play-offs these past couple of weeks. K & O’s team — the South Side Bandits — won the district championship last year for the 9-10 year old division. And thus, they had high hopes for this year. They made it all the way to last night — the final championship game. It came down to South Side (Bethlehem) vs. Mountainville (Allentown). If you’re from anywhere around here, or are even familiar with the scene in the Lehigh Valley, then you know that’s a big deal: Bethlehem vs. Allentown in a Little League Championship is no small thing. It was a nail-biter of a game. The president of the district had hired a special “neutral ump” just for the occassion — and both sides (parents/fans) were urged to keep themselves contained (the two sides’ fan bases don’t have a very good history of being able to keep a lid on it). Tensions were running high, and there were some intense moments on and off the field. In the end, Mountainville won. But South Side came out standing tall and we were very proud of our boys.
Little League is one area of life in which Braydon and I do not take pictures. This are a couple of reasons for that. For one thing, we’re so wrapped up in the actual experience that we don’t have time for photos (we really do love watching the boys play! and it is easy to get very enmeshed in it). But it is mostly because within the culture that is our life during baseball season it would be very awkward, and would actually feel totally inappropriate, to pull out our big expensive camera and start photographing. At South Side Little League folks just aren’t whipping out Nikons. In fact, they aren’t taking pictures, with anything, of anything, at all, ever. So it would just seem wrong for us — of all people — to do it. Even after two years of full immersion in the life of South Side Little League, we are foreigners in a foreign land, and outsiders within. As a result, we have very few pictures, and all of the pictures that we do have are snapshots with our iPhones.
Despite that, a few of our iPhone snapshots seem to capture — for me — much of the essence of our baseball life. It is impossible for me to know if these pictures are evocative and representative to just us, or if they would be to the outside world as well (do they only paint the picture for me because I know the landscape? or do they speak to others too?). Here are the few that we have ~
above: First practice of the season. The season starts early for South Side — basically, as soon as the snow melts. Games begin in April, and there are usually 2 per week (sometimes 3). Away games are within a 30-minute radius of South Bethlehem. As long as it isn’t pouring rain, or heavy snow, there is practice, usually 3-4 times per week — 5:00-8:00ish (or when it is too dark to see) on weeknights, and sometimes Saturday mornings too. Throughout the entire spring and early summer we need to keep our calendar free for weeknights 5-8pm, and all day Saturday. You never know when there will (or will not) be practice, so you have to always be prepared for there to be practice. This schedule is a huge challenge to our family — actually, for our particular family this is probably the biggest challenge of all for us regarding baseball season. As a dual-career couple it is almost impossible to keep up with it, and it requires a ridiculous amount of planning and coordination.
above: Post-game, at the Mountainville snack stand. There is a standing tradition that when Allentown and Bethlehem play each other in a big game, the home team gives the opposing team’s players free hotdogs after the game.
above: South Side Little League Opening Ceremonies 2014. Try-outs are intense, and then most of the teams (definitely beginning with the 9-10 year old age group) do cuts in the first few weeks of practice to weed out the weaker players (they are sent down to the younger teams, not cut out entirely). It is very cut throat, and this was completely shocking to me when we first started. Opening Ceremonies are held only once the teams are totally established and uniforms have been given out. Most of the coaches played for these same teams when they were kids. And many of their fathers and friends’ fathers (and/or uncles and cousins) coached them. It is all kept “in house” and is a very tight knit community. In the photo above you can see the home fields of South Side Little League (the ceremony was held on the 9-10 & 11-12 field; there is also a smaller field for the younger players and a larger field for the older players). You can see the train (tracks) running along the perimeter, and if you look closely you can see the road/highway just on the edge. South Side is completely self-sufficient and maintains it’s own fields. South Side folks often talk about the inequality of baseball-field-maintenance in the area — they are 100% convinced that the surrounding towns/neighborhoods receive better funding and better services for the maintenance of their fields and programs. I have not done the research to know for sure what is going on with that. But I have no reason to suspect that the South Side folks aren’t 100% correct.
above: Kyle at bat, at the home field.
above: Owen at bat, at an opponent’s field.
above: The chalkboard outside the snack stand announces the one and only fundraiser of the season. Braydon and I are consistently shocked by how little fundraising is done, and by how few local businesses and organizations financially support South Side Little League. We have spent many hours hearing the history of why this is. The story seems to have many different versions as told by many different people. The bottom line is that South Side Little League has an extremely limited operating budget and is running on a shoestring (to say the least).
above: A highlight of Kyle’s season — during this game he hit a big home run, and then, in another inning, another home run — with the bases loaded (his first grand slam ever). Braydon snapped the photo as Kyle was coming into the dugout after the grand slam.
above: A highlight of Owen’s season — this was just last night, in the final championship game. Owen’s been used as the closing pitcher for the past several games. This photo was taken during his first inning pitching — we were losing and the goal was to try to hold them. He pitched a 1-2-3 inning — striking out the first three batters up, all in a row. Despite the fact that South Side ended up losing, that inning was a high of the game for the team (and the fans!), and definitely a personal high for Owen.
above: Meera, God love her, has to sit through all of this. Baseball games are “soooo loooong,” and “soooo booooring” (her words) for most of the little sisters, and many of them are sitting through hours and hours of practices on top of the games (at South Side Little League nobody ever drops off their kid; it is fully expected that family members — and preferably the entire family — will be present for all practices and all games throughout the entire season). This all adds up to many hours, many nights a week, all spring long, for all involved. Poor Meera! One of the rewards is that we always say “yes” when the ice cream truck pulls in. And if she happens to be playing with other littles at the moment, then we spring for them too.
above: Owen eats a pastelillo from the snack stand before a game (it cracks me up that he holds his gum in his other hand, which he’ll pop back in when he’s done with his snack). Like all the other teams’ snack stands, the South Side snack stand has hotdogs, potato chips, sunflower seeds, etc. But for special games they sometimes have “the good stuff” too: fresh, from-scratch, homemade tacos (oh my gosh! the best tacos you’ll ever eat!) — or, like at Saturday’s game — pastelillos (the Puerto Rican version of empanadas/pastelitos, stuffed with spicy ground beef) and canoas de platanos maduros (sweet fried plantains stuffed with meat and cheese). We love it all.
above: The Bandits’ gear. Each player brings their own glove and bat (if they have one; sometimes they share bats if all the kids don’t have their own). But the four batting helmets are shared amongst them. The kids’ gloves and bats are valued possessions and are treated as such. I really love and appreciate how the coaches and kids carefully line up the bats and helmets in the dugout before each game, and keep them that way throughout. The equipment is valued and treated with care from the top-down. This is in contrast to our previous experience, with Upper Bucks Little League (K & O played for Durham before we moved to campus), which was a very affluent, very white area. In Durham Little League every player had to have his own glove and bat, but also his own batting helmet, and most had multiple bats and many other baseball accessories. The equipment was usually strewn about and few (if any) players or coaches took care to keep any of it tidy.
above: The Team Photo. Top = 2013, Bottom = 2014. The head coach took these with his phone camera, and doctored them up with the ‘frame,’ proudly texting this to the parents. Whereas lots of teams have professional team photos taken each year, we have this — and honest to God, it is my opinion: this is way, way better.
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South Side Little League is, for us, a full immersion experience. It is a world that we’d never have access to if it weren’t for our boys’ love of baseball. I’m also pretty sure that we would not have access to it if our boys weren’t so good at baseball.
For those who aren’t familiar, Bethlehem is like so many cities in the United States: totally segregated by race and class. The “North Side” (literally, on the north side of the Lehigh River) is relatively wealthy and white. The “South Side” is relatively poor and brown. And, like many college towns, this is all complicated by the fact that Lehigh University sits smack in the middle of South Side. There is a long, troubling history of “town-gown” relationship problems between the university and the community in which it is located. Today, most Lehigh faculty live in North Bethlehem or further out in the sprawling suburbs of the area. Very few faculty live in South Bethlehem (I could probably count them on one hand), and none of them currently have school-aged kids. The South Bethlehem public schools are known to serve predominantly poor and Hispanic kids, and are also known to be — like so many urban public schools — underfunded, under-resourced, and under-served.
Technically, because we live on Lehigh’s campus, our residential address zip code is 18015 — South Side Bethlehem. Despite the fact that this is the neighborhood in which we reside, we enter what is, for us, a completely foreign world when we enter the world of South Side Little League. There are about 80 boys who play for South Side. Most of them are 3rd generation South Side boys; their fathers and grandfathers played for South Side too. As far as I can tell, we are the only non-Hispanic family; the only non ESL family; K & O are the only black non-Hispanic boys; Meera, Braydon, and I are the only white parents/sibling.
Most (probably all) of the families are low-income, and I’m sure many of them are technically well below the poverty line. Spanish is spoken in the home for most. Most parents hold relatively low levels of education and work in low-paying (or minimum wage) occupations. Some of them work for Lehigh (a major employer in South Bethlehem) doing groundskeeping and janitorial services.
At South Side, our family sticks out like a sore thumb, both socio-econoically and racially. But once it was known how Kyle and Owen could contribute, we were welcomed (tentatively at first, and then warmly over time) into the community that has become our community too during baseball season. I’m convinced that it is only because of what Kyle and Owen offer (great athleticism) that we are able to “pass” over the line that is race-and-class in order to be able to enter the world that is South Side Little League.
A majority of the South Side Little League families are Puerto Rican. Baseball is big for them. And Little League is hardcore. These families are serious about their baseball; boys start playing pitch-and-catch with their fathers very young; they start t-ball at age 3 or 4; and they play baseball year-round in the yards and streets of their neighborhoods. For many South Side families, baseball isn’t just a love and it isn’t just a major part of their culture, it is also seen as the ticket out for their sons. While they place a big emphasis on education for their daughters, these families place a huge emphasis on baseball for their sons. (Interestingly, South Side has no softball for girls and baseball is, for them, considered an entirely male sport.) I’ve had many South Side parents tell me of their dreams for their sons — dreams of making it to college on a baseball scholarship, or —even better— making it to the MLB. They speak with complete seriousness of their visions of their sons buying them a house someday, buying them a nice car, and “taking care of them” in the future. So, baseball is not just fun and games for these families and their boys. It is an investment — maybe their biggest investment — an investment of money, energy, and a huge amount of time — in their sons and in the future.
Because of all this, a good portion of these families’ year revolves around the boys’ practices and games. During baseball season everything else seems to be secondary. I’ve heard many times of moms skipping baby showers or even weddings in order to not miss their son’s baseball game. Dads plan their work schedules around the baseball schedule. Extended family regularly come out for the games. People are committed. Taking it seriously and being committed are very important. Parents (or kids) who aren’t taking it seriously enough, or who appear to not be committed enough, are frowned upon, gossiped about, and — ultimately, at times — pushed out. South Side Little League is not for the faint of heart.
The coaches are entirely volunteer. And what they do astounds me. I have been observing the Bandits coaches (there is one head coach and two assistant coaches) for two years now, and I am truly in awe. It isn’t just the hours they put in (which are countless), but it is also the devotion that they have to the sport, to the organization, and to each and every player, that amaze me. Many of the kids are from rough homes, many of the coaches have rough histories, and baseball season is rough in and of itself. The coaches are tough. But it is a hardcore form of tough love. To see these coaches devote themselves so fully to these kids — for no other reason but their own passion for the sport and the cause — is just truly unbelievable. Some of the kids have no dad in the picture, some are on really rocky roads with the dads they do have, and all of them need strong male role models (our boys included). The coaches take this entirely seriously. And they tow the line every day of the season. Even after two years of seeing it firsthand, I am still constantly trying to wrap my mind around it.
Our experience with South Side Little League has been unbelievably interesting to me. As a sociologist, I’ve felt from the start of it that I’m in some sort of strange surreal state which is hard to describe. On one hand, I feel like “just one of the moms” (I spend a lot of time talking with the other moms about the stuff that most moms talk about together: what to have for dinner, problems we’re having with our kids, news and stories from our days, etc.). On the other hand, I am most definitely not an insider in this world. I often feel like I’m doing field work — some sort of participant observation or deep ethnography. Over and over in subtle and not-so-subtle ways I’m reminded that I am not “really” a South Sider — I am a professor at Lehigh; I can’t speak Spanish fluently with them (they often break into Spanish when things get heated, or intense, or when they just don’t want to include me); I am white; and I did not grow up there. I’m an outsider.
But when it comes to the actual day-to-day of baseball season, what seems to matter most is simply who’s kid is up to bat, how many outs there are, and what inning we’re in. I cheer for every player and in return I delight in hearing the cheers for Kyle and Owen (who the South Side seem to absolutely adore). At the end of the game, and at the end of the season, we are a whole community who have sat together in the stands all season long. We’ve shared blankets in the frigid cold, we’ve shared umbrellas in the rain, we’ve shared ice and water sweating together in the heat. We’ve shared stories, we’ve shared heartaches, we’ve shared great moments of joy and delight in seeing each other’s kids hit great hits and make great plays. We’ve shared our younger kids’ snacks and toys with each other. And we’ve shared several months of day-in-day-out baseball. It is the real deal: we are forever bonded. I’ve got their back; they’ve got mine. This is the salt of the earth. There is not much better.
It has been hard for me over the past two years to figure out how to write about our experience with South Side Little League. I don’t want to over-expose what it is, or exploit it in any way. At the same time, I don’t want to gloss over it either. It has become a big part of our family identity, and it is an important part of who we are. In some ways, it would be almost easier if I was doing an ethnography on it— that would almost make our participation seem more logical and understandable to everyone involved. But, the thing is, I’m not. I’m just a mom of two of the players.
Kyle and Owen have been getting quite an education in baseball. They’ve become much better players (and they’ve also learned a lot of curse words in Spanish!). South Side Little League has given them a great baseball experience, and has taught them many life lessons— only a fraction of which are actually about baseball. And, perhaps most important, our whole family has been given the privilege of the full immersion experience that is South Side Little League. All five Johnson-McCormicks are different (better) people because of it.
above: A plate of amazing Puerto Rican food at a South Side Little League picnic.
above: My favorite little dude at South Side Little League. When the season started he was only a couple of weeks old. I’ve spent many hours holding this little man this spring. I will so miss him when Little League season is over (note: for the kids who are invited to join the district All-Star Team, which — for better or for worse, includes us — we now go into All-Star post-season play…. it feels like it will never end!).