The $1.25 Million Wiffle Ball Field

By Beacon Staff

Controversy has exploded in Greenwich, Conn., where a group of teenagers built a Wiffle ball field in a vacant lot and are now at the center of a massive feud concerning liability issues on the property, drainage problems, and the value of the land where the diamond now sits. The story clearly touches a chord within people who wonder how, exactly, a modern kid is supposed to be a kid. Sometimes I wonder the same thing.

One of the kids who helped clear the weeds and tall grass out of the field, and built and painted a mini-Fenway-esque “Green Monster” in the outfield summed up the nature of the controversy in the sullen, delightfully succinct way that only teenagers can when he commented to the New York Times, “People think we should be home playing ‘Grand Theft Auto.’”

And that’s when your heart breaks. You can’t read this story without imagining what led up to the field’s construction: the handful of kids kneeling down in a weedy lot, scratching bug bites and hatching a plan, discussing where they could find wood scraps, whose father’s lawnmower they could borrow, how much allowance money they could pool for paint. They built it; they started something. More kids showed up to play. And it looked like it was turning out to be a very good summer.

But the bland reality of adulthood intruded, when neighbors of the Wiffle ball field complained it had become too noisy, and they didn’t buy their houses anticipating some teenage melee underway every evening when they returned home from work – not to mention the estimated value of the lot: $1.25 million in one of New York City’s wealthiest suburbs.

Now Greenwich’s city government is compelled to get involved and lawyers may need to be called and the New York Times is writing about the Wiffle ball field Vincent Provenzano and Justin Currytto started, for pete’s sake.

The lingering uneasiness of what’s happening to these kids derives, for me, from the notion that there are some places where kids aren’t allowed to be idle anymore – that wandering around a vacant field and putting something together with a bunch of other kids who don’t have anything to do either is simply not a situation that arises too often.

The idea that kids might have the summer time to themselves, to do with what they please, may be becoming an increasingly romantic idea. As if relics of some previous era, our culture romanticizes idle childhood now, with movies like The Sandlot and Stand By Me and Calvin and Hobbes cartoons given over to lengthy musings on summer’s long hours and how to fill them. I think most people recognize that if those hours become too filled, or regarded as somehow not valuable, some unspoken but essential part of growing up in this country dissolves.

When I was 12 or 13, a bunch of my friends and I discovered a rotting wooden quarter-pipe ramp on a weed-choked, deserted tennis court tucked up in the woods where some old summer camp once stood. You could see the court from the road in the winter, but in the summer, with the leaves on the trees, it was hidden. We spent a few days sweeping and shoveling the court, and refurbishing the ramp as best we could, and much of the rest of the summer was given over to launching off that ramp with whatever we could think of: rollerblades, skateboards, bicycles.

We fixed up the court and, in our eyes, the work we put in gave us some ownership over it. It was fun because it was ours, but it was also fun because it was something for which we didn’t have to join an organization or sign a registration or a safety waiver. No one would give us trophies evaluating our performance and we weren’t necessarily going to learn anything from it. I hadn’t thought about that old court in years, but I did when I read this story.