With Little League seasons long canceled, local children take to the field at Veteran’s Memorial Park in Winter Garden for Sandlot Days.
For a brief few hours, everything in the world is right.
On this surprisingly breezy Friday night, Field 1 at Veteran’s Memorial Park in Winter Garden is lively, as the sounds of laughing children and metal bats pinging loudly create a cacophony of sound that together creates a traditional song of summer that hasn’t been heard in months.
For some of these 12- and 13-year-olds, this is the first time they have been able to take to the field with their friends for a baseball game since they found out the Little League season was canceled in May. But right now — in this moment of sandlot baseball — everything is perfect with children playing on the field.
“It’s been really good,” said Winter Garden Little Leaguer Joseph Griffin, 12. “I’ve been thinking about taking a break from baseball, but they got me hooked onto this.”
For Jack Patterson, who plays for the Winter Garden Junior Squeeze, this summer has been a strange one, but he is happy to get back together for a game with his buddies.
“It’s weird, but also not weird, because I’m traveling ball,” Jack said. “It’s not fun when you don’t get to play with your friends.”
When Winter Garden Little League announced in May that the summer season wouldn’t happen, there was a lot of disappointment, WGLL President Jaclyn Lowe said.
“It’s been kind of sad on both a personal and president level, because my kids love to play baseball and you get in that baseball groove — where you’re playing, fall, spring and All-Stars over the summer,” Lowe said. “But when there is nothing, then you’re kind of like, ‘Hmph, what do I do?’”
The answer would come through an option offered by Little League known as Sandlot Days. And luckily, thanks to support from the city of Winter Garden, the organization was given permission to hold games at Veteran’s Memorial Park.
As the name entails, Sandlot Days involves loosely organized games where children can go out and just enjoy the game of baseball without the stress of winning and losing, Lowe said.
“These kids are having so much fun, and it kind of takes it back to that really old-school playground (baseball),” Lowe said. “Kids are in charge, there is no pressure, and they’re just out there — there is no matching uniforms, and it’s like on the playground.
“They seem like they’re having a lot more fun than they do when they get into the Little League setting or the travel-ball setting (where) it’s about winning,” she said. “Now, it’s just being out there messing around.”
The Sandlot Days started in mid-June with little marketing — Lowe wanted to get a test run in to see how things went before taking the program public. A few weeks later, things were set to go public and allow children — both from the league and outside of it — to come out and play.
Since then, 96 players have registered to play across the four different age groups offered by WGLL: Tuesday night is for the youngest children (6-, 7- and 8-year-olds), Thursday night is for the oldest (13-, 14-, 15- and 16-year-olds), Friday night is for the Little League majors group (11- and 12-year-olds), and Saturday morning is for children who are 9 and 10 years old.
And although the children largely run the program on the field, adults who normally coach — such as Kyle Flannigan (7-, 8- and 9-year-olds), Steve Puhr (10- and 11-year olds), Josh Steele and Jerry Johnston (11- and 12-year-olds) and Marcus Griffin (13 years and older) — play the roles of supervisors and officials.
Seeing how the young players adapt and do things has been the best part of the whole experience, Steele said.
“It’s cool to watch the kids, and put the responsibility on them and see how they handle things — they go out there and pick their own teams and they pick positions and everything like that,” Steele said. “It’s been fun to watch them kind of grow a little bit themselves at that age and kind of almost coach their own teams.”
So far, the experiment has been going well, with kids generally following social distancing and other guidelines that were put into place to allow this to happen.
At this point whatever it takes to keep playing baseball, they’ll do it, because for some — if not all — it’s the dream of dreams.
“When I get older, I want to play for a Major League team,” Jack said. “I don’t care who I get on, I just want to play baseball.”