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When I was a kid growing up, some of my best memories were throwing around the baseball with my older brother in our backyard. Using our imaginations, we used almost every tree and rock in our yard to create fantasy sports and games.
One of our favorite games was something we called 'error'. One of us would throw a tennis ball on the roof of our house--within an imaginary twenty foot boundary--and the other would have to catch the ball before it hit the ground. We spent endless hours playing this game. Other than some yelling from my parents (something about too many balls being stuck in the gutter), this game still sticks in my mind as providing some of the most fun in my childhood.
Flash forward twenty-five years, I found myself with my kids creating similar games in our backyard (with my own gutter lurking nearby), most combined fun with affordability. We made use of almost every part of our property.
Instead of spending over a hundred dollars on a hitting net, we put together a comparable apparatus using a 10x14 plastic tarp along with some bicycle hooks, rope, and two adjacent trees. We had fun putting it up. The boys would hit balls into the tarp as I did my best impression of a big league hitting coach giving tips.
Drills such as hitting off the batting tee and soft toss worked out great, too, with the tarp as backstop, but wacky games were also plentiful. We created a game right on the tarp, putting two squares, one inside the other made out of duct tape. This game we called 'toss ball home run derby'. Doing the soft toss drill against the tarp, a ball hit inside the small square would be a home run. A ball hit inside the large square would be a single. Everything else was an out. Three outs a team. This game combined skill building and having fun.
I have been inventing games for years. One of the first things I did with both my sons as soon as they were old enough to hold a bat was get one of those large red plastic Wiffle ball bats. I then bought a bottle of soap bubbles that all kids love. I would blow the bubbles and have my son hit them with the big red bat. We would run up and down the backyard as he chased the bubbles down and tried to break them. I encouraged him to keep both hands on the bat as he swung, but if he didn't, so what, he was having fun.
Another game my kids loved when they got a little older was called the 'dive game'. I found a nice soft patch of thick grass in my backyard and I would throw ground balls to either their left or right side, and they would have to dive in front of the ball to stop it. I tried teaching them that the goal was to just stop the ball--like a hockey or soccer goalie--and not necessarily catch it. But it was amazing how much effort they put into trying to catch the ball. Aside from explaining the grass stains to their mother, this game was a real hit with them, and I even caught them playing it without me a few times, which made me feel great.
Another favorite involved a few tennis balls, a tennis racquet, and a cinder block. Laying the cinder block flat, we created a simple version of 'Home Run Derby'. Standing next to one of my kids as he held the tennis racquet ready to swing it like a bat, I would bounce the ball high off the cinder block. With the ball on the way down, he would time it and hit it as far as he could. Both my kids could not get enough of this game. We were lucky that our backyard was fairly large, but some of the tennis balls did travel into our neighbor's yard. The real beauty of this game is that hitting a tennis ball with a tennis racquet almost guarantees success for the young ballplayer.
Families who live in the inner city can also make use of a lot of what's around them. I remember as a child going to visit my grandparents in Brooklyn, New York. My uncle would take my brothers and me to the back of the building and play numerous games off the huge concrete wall. 'Toss ball home run derby' can be played off a wall, as well as a tarp, with the two squares made out of chalk.
Another game that we played that was made popular just after World War 2 was called 'stoop ball'. In this game, we would throw a ball off the stoop (or concrete steps) and see if the other team would catch it before it bounced on the ground. One bounce would be a single; two bounces a double, and so on. Inner city kids who have limited room can still find just enough space to play for hours on end if creative and have a love for the game.
In the youth sports society today, I maintain that we have so many teams and leagues and so much structure, we are not giving kids enough chance to use their imagination, either in their own backyard or their own street. A lot of what kids can invent themselves can be executed with little or no expense.
Practicing baseball or any other sport does not need to cost a fortune. And it doesn't have to be all boring instruction, whether it is on a practice field with twelve kids or in your own backyard with just you and your son or daughter. Keep it cheap, if you can, and keep it fun.