- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Somewhere in the infrastructure President Barack Obama talks about rebuilding, I hope there are a few playgrounds. In fact, I hope there are a lot of playgrounds - playgrounds refurbished and playgrounds built.

By playgrounds, I don’t mean swings and slides. There seem to be more than enough of those. I mean ball fields. I mean places where kids can assemble as a group and play as a group, perhaps even spontaneously. Where have they all gone?

I raise this question, Mr. President, because one of your other priorities is a national health care plan, and there are few things that impact on the nation’s health quite like exercise - or the lack thereof. The figures are frightening: Nearly two-thirds of our population is overweight or obese; so are almost half the children from age 10 to 17. An out-of-shape citizenry is an unhealthy citizenry, and the latter puts a tremendous strain, economically, on any health care plan, national or otherwise.

So we need to do more, Mr. President, than just encourage people to eat salad and do jumping jacks. We need to make recreation more accessible. And one way you do that is by making playgrounds (a.) more inviting and (b.) more plentiful.

Just to show you how bad it’s gotten, in the suburban D.C. town I lived in until recently - a town of over 40,000 - there was exactly one baseball field with 90-foot base paths available. One. And on the outfield fence was a sign, universally ignored, that said, basically, “Keep off the grass.”

A little farther down the road was a county-run recreational park - with, of course, locks on the gates to the fields. To play there, you had to pay for a permit… and book weeks in advance. Or rather, your organization did. Can’t say I ever saw any pickup games on those fields.

So it goes in modern America. We want people - kids especially - to be healthy and fit, but we make it needlessly difficult for them to do that. We don’t have enough fields or indoor facilities (which is why these privately owned sportsplexes have popped up), and we charge folks to use the fields and facilities we do have.

Meanwhile, we give professional teams free stadiums and arenas. Explain that to me sometime, will ya?

If we value sports and recreation as a society - and I think we do - we should value them enough so that they’re not only accessible but free. Economics should never be a consideration for a kid who wants to shoot baskets in a gym when there’s snow on the ground or practice baseball so he can make the high school squad. He or she shouldn’t need a permit or have to pay an admission fee. The door or gate should always be open.

But more and more, Mr. President, it isn’t. You wouldn’t believe the hoops I had to jump through just to get a second practice time each week for the rec basketball team I once coached. Never mind the expense, the time slot was 9 to 10 on Friday nights. This was a team of 10-year-olds, mind you.

That’s another thing. Even if you’re fortunate enough to find a place to play, you might be finishing, say, a 12-and-under baseball game at 10 p.m. - on a school night. Ridiculous. But this is how it is when facilities are in such short supply.

Maybe, like me, you think back on your own youth, Mr. President, and wonder why things can’t be as good, sportswise, for our own children as they were for us. I went to a public junior high on the East Coast that fielded boys’ teams in football, soccer, basketball, wrestling, gymnastics (as a club), baseball, tennis and track. The school had its own major league-sized baseball field and a quarter-mile track.

The public middle school my two sons attended, on the other hand, offered soccer, basketball and, uh, co-ed softball. Period. The only baseball field was Little League-sized. There was no quarter-mile track. And this, I’ll just point out, is in one of the most affluent counties in the country.

So when I read about our nation - and worse, our children - getting chubbier, I think: How could they not? Athletic programs prior to high school are minimal, and it’s getting harder and harder, once you’ve outgrown the Jungle Gym, to find an unoccupied field or facility… or even a patch of grass that hasn’t been reduced to dust by the pounding of countless cleats.

A couple of summers ago, while back home visiting family, I went searching for a baseball field with my sons and their cousin. We drove to a couple of playgrounds that used to have “big fields.” The fields were gone. We tried the high school. The field there was overgrown and unusable. Finally, we checked out the field behind the former high school, now an elementary school. The gate was locked.

Feeling dangerous, we hopped the fence and began playing. I’d been hitting grounders for about 15 minutes when a guy pulled up in an SUV. He was obviously an Official Local Baseball Person. For one thing, he was wearing an Official Local Baseball Jacket. For another, he had a big set of keys and proceeded to unlock the gate.

“You can’t play here,” he said. “We’re trying to save the field for fall ball. Don’t make me call the cops.”

So it was, Mr. President, that in August 2007, I got kicked off the field where I played my high school ball. If that isn’t an infrastructure problem, I don’t know what is. This, after all, is America. And when it comes to athletics, everybody should have the same set of keys.

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