MIKE BURKE

Allegany Radio Corporation Sports

Today is the last day of school around here, so here’s to Alice Cooper, right?

Today is a day that will always ring true, for it is the last day of school and the first day of the rest of our lives. Or so it seemed until Labor Day.

It is time to spend the rest of your time, seemingly, with the best of your best — your friends, Your best pals.

It’s time to play baseball, baby — 24/7.

Watched the 1993 movie “The Sandlot” the other day. It is, of course, a wonderful movie; it is a wonderful so-called baseball movie, even if it’s not “A League of Their Own,” which few movies of any genre are.

“The Sandlot” never fails, though, to bring back warm memories. It’s about really living your life and not watching it all pass along while you attempt to make a left turn in Cumberland.

I dare you to watch it again and not remember how perfect it was to fall deeper and deeper in love with the game of baseball, when we played ball all day long and when there were afternoon big-league ballgames on any given day of the week.

That was one of the many great things about having Mr. Harold Conrad as our sixth-grade teacher at Johnson Heights Elementary School. The World Series was played during the day then (the last World Series without a single night game) and Mr. Conrad, for some reason, had a cable TV hook-up in his classroom.

Mr. Conrad was one of only three male teachers in the building then, so he got it. But he was also our teacher, so he really got it, telling us unless everybody had their assignments completed, we would not be watching any of the World Series. And for some reason, he emphasized everybody as he looked at my pals Kevin Royce and Doug Wade … and, yes, me.

Conrad loved the three of us. He must have, because he sure as hell was on our arses all of the time. So everybody knew who Mr. Conrad was talking to when he said “everybody.” And since this was 1970 and the World Series was quickly becoming The Brooks Robinson Show, Mr. Conrad knew everybody — that would be Royce, Wade and Burke — would have their assignments completed. And we did. Believe me, he checked before the button on that little black-and-white television he brought from home went “click.”

So who needed a transistor radio to sneak listens to the Series when we had Mr. Conrad for our teacher? Heck, all we had to do was our work … What a concept.

I think about those times when I watch “The Sandlot,” and how I feel for any kid today who would watch it and say, “What are they doing? Why are they playing baseball by themselves? Where are the uniforms? Couldn’t they get into a league? They won’t get a trophy.”

Don’t misunderstand. Once we signed up to play little league, the uniforms were a big deal. And if you were good enough to win a trophy, rather than have one handed to you for just showing up, sure, that was important, too; which is why we remain grateful to the Dapper Dan Club of Allegany County.

Even when we were in little league, though, we still played on our own — unquestionably more than we did when we were wearing uniforms. So thank goodness we didn’t have the options kids have today. Thank goodness we didn’t have any options at all, because our parents wouldn’t let us stay in the house without visible evidence of lighting, snow, or a thermometer that read below 20 degrees.

In the 1960s, about half of the mothers in our neighborhood worked, but since my mother was a school teacher, she was home during the summer. Yet that didn’t make her any different from any of the other moms in the sense that I would be allowed in the house on a summer day to eat, use the bathroom or be sick; and she knew the only time I was sick was during the school year on Opening Day or World Series games.

After that, for all of us, it was, “Out you go. Stay out until I call you (there were no cell phones then) or the street lights come on.”

If we weren’t having so much fun, it was the type of thing we might have taken personally. But we were too busy playing ball to take anything personally.

There were ballfields and playgrounds everywhere in Cumberland. Within walking distance of my house there were always games at Fort Hill, Washington Junior High, vacant lots, Penn Avenue and Post ballfields and playgrounds, Virginia Avenue playground, Mapleside playground, St. Mary’s parking lot, Constitution Park, and our home base, the Johnson Heights playground.

We went to every cost to avoid Johnson Heights from September through early June, Monday through Friday, from 9 o’clock in the morning until 3:30 in the afternoon. But once school was out for the day, or for the summer, that’s where we could usually be found — if we weren’t at Browne’s Store buying rubber baseballs (Hit the Fence) or baseball cards, playing pinball, having a cherry blend, or being run off by Mr. Browne, who called everybody under the age of 30 “damn hippies.”

It was on those playgrounds and fields where we found ourselves — who the best ballplayers were, who the toughest guys were, who the leaders were and who we were going to lead or follow if we ever got into a pinch together (which we did whenever a window was broken).

Most of all, it was on those playgrounds and fields where we found each other and grew together, making friendships that are stronger today than they were then — because of then.

If we see somebody from Johnson Heights for the first time in 25 years or so, as we often do, we simply pick up just where we left off before we went our separate ways in the day.

They were the best times of our lives.

If you were a kid on the sandlot in those days, you know what I mean. You know how it was. You miss it, and you wouldn’t trade a moment of it for anything in the world.

So to all the Moms out there who ran the households, thank you for making us stay outside to play ball and to be with our friends. Most importantly, thank you for allowing us to try to grow up. Thank you for your trust.

Oh, and once we did have uniforms? Thank you for making sure we all got to our games so we would have a place to be seen wearing them.

We may have been sandlot, but you sure made us feel big league.

Mike Burke writes about sports and other stuff for Allegany Communications. He began covering sports for the Prince George’s Sentinel in 1981 and joined the Cumberland Times-News sports staff in 1984, serving as sports editor for over 30 years. Contact him at [email protected] and [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBurkeMDT