This was the real Opening Day for the true boys of summer.
With the thumping drums and clashing cymbals of the St. Clair's Emeralds Band, the annual Bayside Little League Parade kicked off at 43rd Ave. and Bell Blvd., on the bright, nippy Saturday morning of April 10.
The kids marched down Bell Blvd., where locals lined the sidewalks, clapping and cheering the kids, as well they should. For this was the passing parade of life itself. This was the future walking by, as it was in thousands of other neighborhoods and small towns across this vast and diverse nation that is held together by a yellowed old parchment called the Constitution of the United States of America, and by another set of American laws called the Rules of Baseball, which is a game plan for American life.
Here in Bayside, some 950 kids, dressed in their smart jerseys and hats of green, yellow, blue, red and purple, accompanied by coaches and parents, departed from in front of a spanking new Bank of America branch, itself an ironic symbol of rebirth after one of the grimmest economic years in history.
The parade passed VIPizza, a team sponsor, and looped around the small-townish LIRR train depot and the local post office where an American flag snapped against delft-blue skies as these kids, who carried the purest version of America's pastime on their young shoulders, clutched sponsors' banners, smiled and goofed off, ready to tackle another season of the best game ever invented for children.
Norman Rockwell could have painted it.
When police close the main boulevard of any American community so that Little Leaguers can march under trees popping with verdant buds, you know that the wheel of life has at long last turned to the season of life, the season of baseball. A game that turns boys onto the road to manhood and can likewise turn a grown man back into a boy of summer.
"I was 45 when my son was born," said Jerry Costa, coach of the Bayside Bonnie Brite in-house team, in the purple jerseys. "I never played organized Little League when I was a kid. We had a bunch of kids who met on a sandlot in College Point, and we called ourselves the Arco Field Bulldogs. The day I brought my son Anthony to his first Dwarf Giraffe T-Ball game when he was 5 and I was 50, I figured I was too old to coach baseball. Two hours later, I was hauling home an equipment bag as the manager of the team."
Costa, a postal worker, later moved to the Bayside Little League and has since coached 15 teams in five years, including tournament and championship travel teams. He runs baseball clinics with former New York Mets infielder Kevin Baez in the Bayside Batting and Pitching batting cage, where he also does individual instruction.
"From spring to fall, I put in 40 hours a week to Little League," Costa says. "I love every minute of it. Bayside is the biggest and best Little League in New York. I love watching the kids that are talented, of course. But the biggest thrill is watching the kids who are struggling blossom by the end of a season. Once a kid learns to hit, throw, field, steal, slide, he becomes a different kid. Once a kid gets good at this beautiful game, he gets the confidence for anything. His grades improve. He makes more friends. He becomes a happier kid. Little League prepares you for life, see?"
Last year, for the first time in 20 years, the Mets couldn't find room in their new stadium for a discount ticket day for Bayside Little Leaguers. But this June 6, some 800 Bayside Little Leaguers will again get a chance to walk out on the Mets' field. "I'm thrilled that we have regenerated our relationship with the Mets," says Bob Reid, commissioner of Bayside Little League. "We sold 1,275 discounted $16 Mets tickets in five hours. For many families, this will be the only game they can afford all season."
This season's parade ended at the Little League fields of Crocheron Park on 35th Ave., where Kerin Daly sang a beautiful rendition of the national anthem, and Matthew Santagato recited the Little League Pledge, and national politicians like Rep. Anthony Weiner and Sen. Chuck Schumer, who know very well that all politics are as local as home plate, gave mercifully brief but inspiring riffs on the glories of baseball.
The crowd roared.
That afternoon, on a ballfield up in Fort Totten, Jerry Costa's Bonnie Brite team won its first game of the season, 9-5.
But nobody lost.
Everyone wins when spring arrives and kids are back on the fields of America playing baseball.