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Back when

It was an American tradition and it was being revived. It belonged in the era of my childhood dreams, the era of bubble gum and baseball cards, of shooters and games of marbles, of jacks and of jackknives and games of mumbletypeg. It was a real, honest-to-goodness, old-fashioned American game of sandlot baseball, and I found it wonderful.

Gone were the uniforms and the uniformed children, identical in age, size, grade, and sex. Gone were the tension-ridden parents overseeing the nerve-racking computer-scored games. Gone were the agitated adults, umpires, managers, assistant managers, and assistant-assistant managers. Gone were the scheduled ''time outs'' while harried officials consulted Section B of Article 2 of Part 1 of the ever-so-official rule book. Yes, and gone too was the sight of my small son breaking down in tears because he flubbed the catch in front of the coach. Banished for a time was the look of repressed longing on my young daughter's face because she's never allowed to play ball with her brother and his friends in a league game because ''she's a girl.''

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It was wonderful! We held a Saturday afternoon barbecue highlighted by an old-fashioned softball game. We never expected such a response! We had invited twenty friends and neighbors; twenty-five showed up, hesitantly eager to play. A few minutes after the game began, a carload of strangers slowed to watch and then called out to ask if they could join the fun. The players were men and women, boys and girls, ranging in age from eight to sixty-eight. ''You're out!'' ''No, I'm not!'' ''I said you're out!'' ''You don't know what you're talking about!''

It was good old-fashioned democracy in action. See who can shout the other guy down.

''Hey, look how little she is,'' my husband's weekend golf partner called from the outfield as my small daughter stepped up to bat. ''Move in a little closer and pitch her an easy one.'' It was good old-time generosity spawning the perfect system of handicapping.

''I don't see too well without my glasses,'' explained the bookkeeper who lived down the road and whose conversation in the ten years he had been my neighbor had consisted of tight-lipped greetings. ''You take first,'' he said to my son, ''and I'll go way out in the field so I won't mess up an important play.'' It was teamwork because the individual wanted to do what was best for the team, not because some coach was shoving ''teamwork'' down his throat. When one oldster got tired, he sent a youngster in to relieve him, while he sat on a haystack and sipped some refreshment.

Nobody kept score. Everybody kept score. Nobody cared what inning it was, and the game ended when there was no one left who wasn't too tired to play. Best of all, everybody had a grand time and went away feeling great and wanting to do it again. I've seen a lot of Little League games and though I'm convinced they serve a good purpose for many, I never once saw a Little League game that left every participant feeling so much goodwill toward teammates and opponents alike.

I have silently, sometimes without caring, watched progress replace country roads with freeways, corner grocery stores with sterile supermarkets, and one-room schoolhouses with large impersonal buildings. But something in me hesitated to accept progress when organized Little League games started replacing spontaneous neighborhood softball games.

It is not just nostalgia. It was a memory revived and brought to life for a gathering of friends and family. But I feel just a little sad that a scene so interwoven with my childhood and the childhood of so many Americans has become a novelty in this country. What has happened to that empty lot that used to be on everybody's block?

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