Playing Baseball in a Lacrosse-Crazed Town
I once found myself walking past a varsity lacrosse game at an area independent high school and, in doing so, felt a sudden urge to genuflect.
I suppose it was a knee-jerk reaction left over from all those years during my childhood attending mass on a weekly basis. The environment at the game possessed the same feeling of reverence. You could have heard a pin drop—until one of the teams scored, of course. Then, the outburst was deafening.
To say that Baltimore is a hotbed of lacrosse would be somewhat of an understatement. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that the Johns Hopkins Lacrosse Team represented the U.S. in both the 1928 and 1932 Olympics. Or perhaps it’s because Baltimore’s Bryn Mawr School formed the first ever women’s lacrosse team in the 1920’s. Baltimore is also the home of US Lacrosse, the sport’s governing body; the Lacrosse Hall of Fame; and a lacrosse museum. Oh yeah, Lacrosse Magazine is based in Baltimore too.
Given the myriad ties that Baltimore has to the sport, it stands to reason that each spring legions of local parents impress upon their young children the grandeur of lacrosse, hoping their offspring will turn out to be as skilled at the game as they once were, as they believed themselves to be, or as they wished they had been. But wait. What about baseball?
Okay, so until last year the Baltimore Orioles hadn’t given local boys much to emulate in quite some time. But it certainly seems they’ve turned the corner, giving reason once again to believe in the Great American Game. But is it too late? Is the pull of lacrosse, particularly in the upper quadrants of the socioeconomic bracket in Baltimore, too great to allow room enough for baseball to be played with equal vigor on the same campuses and recreational parks where lacrosse is played?
With a son who has loved nothing more than swinging a baseball bat since he concocted his own with a stick in the backyard as a toddler and a husband who comes home from coaching high school baseball for hours only to look at replays on Varsity Sports Network of the same games he just sat through, I knew I had to look outside my own baseball-friendly family to determine if baseball still has a solid standing in this lacrosse-crazed town.
I started by talking to my neighbor Will Reid, who plays JV baseball for Boys Latin which, last time I checked, had the highest ranked lacrosse team in the nation. Will has played baseball since he was 5. When I asked him why, he gave me a simple honest answer: “I love baseball,” he said.
Will recognizes but doesn’t seem bothered by the fact that few, if any, students attend Boys Latin baseball games, whereas the sidelines are packed with students during lacrosse games. He seems to feel similarly about the status of kids at school who play lacrosse. “They’re definitely the popular group of kids,” said Will matter-of-factly.
But it’s not as though there’s a complete and irreversible schism between lacrosse players and ‘others’ at Baltimore’s independent schools. Will says some of his friends at school play lacrosse. So do some friends of Sean O’Donnell, a junior at Gilman who plays on the school’s varsity baseball team. “I have a couple of good friends who are lacrosse players,” said Sean, who acknowledges that, during the spring sports season, the boundaries between baseball and lacrosse become more pronounced.
Sean was raised in Columbia, Maryland until he was in fourth grade, when he transferred to Gilman and moved to Baltimore shortly afterward. He was surprised at how few kids at his new school played baseball, a sport with which he’d grown up. The summer between fourth and fifth grade, he decided to acclimate himself to lacrosse. He practiced his stick skills regularly, but it wasn’t enough to convert him.
Sean doesn’t regret his decision. Although he recognizes that Gilman is definitely better known for lacrosse than baseball, he describes baseball as an “up and coming” program at the school—especially since it won the MIAA ‘A’ championship a few years ago under the direction of former Orioles players Cal Ripken and Larry Sheets.
Will Reid tells a similar story. He says that this year, Boys Latin is fielding its first JV baseball team in a long time, due to an uptick of interest in the sport. An attempt to confirm this with the athletic director at Boys Latin went unanswered. It is, after all, the height of the lacrosse season.
Other signs point to a comeback for baseball in Baltimore. This year, the Roland Park Baseball League (RPBL) enrolled an estimated 770 kids in its program. That’s up from 642 kids last year and, according to RPBL’s commissioner Dave Riegel, it may be an all-time high. “We’re the largest league in the area,” said Riegel, who noted that kids come from Ellicott City, Pikesville, Hereford and other communities to play in the well-reputed league established in 1952.
Riegel attributes the surge in interest largely to a resurgence of ‘Orioles Magic’ that, before last season, had been missing for over a decade. But he’s not oblivious to the competition the sport gets from lacrosse. “During the lax splash tournament in June, we don’t even schedule baseball games that weekend,” he said. Too many kids who play both sports would be missing.
Riegel recalls a time when friends of his son, who has since aged out of the RPBL program, teased him about playing baseball instead of lacrosse. As a comeback, Riegel suggested his son ask his buddies if they could name three professional lacrosse players. That usually stopped the chatter.
Riegel does concede however that, given all the distractions available to kids these days—like electronic games and devices—the slower pace of baseball doesn’t work for all boys. “I coached a kid who was using second base as a pillow. Then you’ve got Ferdinand in the outfield picking daisies,” he said.
But for kids who are taught the skills of baseball, learn the game, and start hitting and catching well, the attraction to baseball is undeniable, says Riegel. Plus, he adds, many parents find baseball a refreshing change from the intensity applied to other sports. “They love the old-time feel of baseball,” Riegel said.