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Dream of fields
Yes, you can play pickup ball in the city (and no, it doesn't have to be in a sandlot)
By Jill Caryl Weiner - Tue Jun 22 2004
Call us hopeless romantics, but when we think about summer, we think about playing softball until the sun sets. Forget the schedule. Come July, we're hanging out in the outfield, watching the grass and the kids grow.
Of course, those lazy, hazy days of sliding into home base aren't as easy to arrange in New York City as they are in, say, Pleasantville. But if you're adventurous, creative and willing to take a chance, even stony Gotham has potential for summertime pickup games.
According to the Parks Department, there are 109 softball, baseball and little-league fields in Manhattan alone. Little Leagues finish in June, though, so that leaves a lot of empty diamonds—except in the late afternoons and evenings, when the adult leagues play. Okay, the Parks Department strongly suggests you have a permit, but the unwritten rule is that if fields are empty, it's first-come, first-served until a team with a permit shows up. (To apply for a permit, go to www.nyc.gov/parks.)
"If there's not a scheduled permitted game, people are welcome to come out and play," says Craig Hudon of the Battery Park City Parks Conservancy, which offers two Little League diamonds and even loans equipment from the field house (for information, call 212-786-4044).
There are several good spots in Riverside Park. The sprinkler oval at Riverside's Dino Park (at 97th Street) has had great pickup games, and if the sprinklers are on, you can try just north of the playground.
The Parks Department is not so breezy about Central Park. Park officials say you might strike out if you try to play pickup ball there, but we've spied casual games by Central Park West north of 86th Street, on the grass at East Meadow and on some of the diamonds, especially at the North Meadow. If you go, bring cell phones for last-minute location changes, because yesterday's great spot may suddenly be fenced off for reseeding or closed because it's wet. (Central Park fields are closed on Mondays. Fields open at 11am on weekdays, 8am on weekends.)
In Prospect Park, "there's every possibility in the world that you can find ball fields," says Tupper Thomas, park administrator. The best spots: Long Meadow (seven fields) or the newly restored Parade Grounds (11 fields). "The thing is," she warns, "you may not be able to find enough people to field a team."
Tom Gilbert, who has been running a pickup game in Prospect Park for 30 years, offers a solution to that problem. "Show up, throw the ball around, and see who joins you," he says. "Next time, head out to the same spot at the same time." Basically, you're planting the seeds for a regular pickup game.
For kids under six or seven, a great place to fill out a team is the playground. "You can't walk into a playground with a ball and bat without an immediate pickup game happening," says Upper East Side dad Kris Salovaara.
Now that you're ready to play, the main thing is to make it fun, says Tim Otano, a coach with Baseball Center NYC, a training facility on the Upper West Side (202 West 74th St, 212-362-0344). If the kids are really little, forget about balls and strikes (but teach the kids not to throw the bat). "At that age it's damage control," says Otano. "Otherwise, you'll have a bunch of crying kids on your hands."
And crying kids can really throw a monkey wrench into that whole lazy-hazy, watching-the-grass-grow vibe we're trying to achieve.