As a kid, baseball was my first love in sports. This was the 1980s, so the Lakers were at their Magic-Kareem apex, but my first allegiance went to the Tommy Lasorda Dodgers. We lived in a small apartment that backed up to an empty property. Our friends lived a couple lots up from us. In the dog days of summer, when we were at our pestering best and given a 90-day reprieve from academics, we were often sent outside to “go play.”
There wasn’t much to do outside. We didn’t have a lot of money. Sometimes, we could spring for a Slurpee, or an ice cream at Thrifty’s, but often it was just tedium with a few trees of shade. At some point, when all of the neighborhood boys were sent outside to get out of their parent’s hair, we gravitated toward the empty lot. The lot was a customary foothill chaparral property, although I don’t think we really understood property rights back then. We could easily go by the fence and out to hang out with gophers, snakes, stray cats, you name it. Between my friend Jeremy’s house and the empty lot was a pile of abandoned concrete. This we built into a fort which was rather pointless since this wasn’t land we had to defend. Hanging out for a bit got boring, and we would abandon our post immediately.
We all had bikes. My Brother and I had twin 1982 BMX bikes with our names painted on the sides. The other neighborhood kids would tell us that their bikes were better and BMX bikes weren’t any good. I have no idea if they were right, or if they were simply full of shit. Most likely the latter.
The unnamed lot became our area to off-road bike and elevate some rad jumps. We had a piece of plywood, placing it on a couple of the cinderblocks from the decaying fort. It was quite a thrilling experience to get some air and actually land upright. Our off-road bike careers ended though, when my Brother managed to hit the plywood ramp just as it split in half, sending him and bike directly into the cinderblocks and somersaulting over the handlebars. Those dumbass kids may have claimed they had better bikes, but we both beat the Hell out of ours and they kept on riding. Thank you BMX.
This would be the point where we built our own baseball stadium. I never got to play in Little League, but our friend Jeremy played regularly. I could bike to his games at Yucaipa Elementary (since closed…it was an old school even then) where his Orioles would play and often lose. I had to vicariously live the life of a Little Leaguer through him. For me, the empty lot became my refuge. We stomped the weeds in a diamond, piled up dirt to make a mound, and our baseball field was born. I couldn’t tell you if the mound was the Little League 46 feet, we were kids and we couldn’t have borrowed a measuring tape if we wanted to. I did have a bat and ball, so I would be the Commissioner of the Date Avenue Baseball League of Yucaipa, California. I wasn’t very good. I would have struck out a lot in Little League.
One lot to the West of us on Date Avenue was a large family of strange people, if Boo Radley had an entire clan to domicile with. They were trashy, loud, obnoxious, and not particularly well-liked in the neighborhood. My parents called them the “Cinnamon’s,” which wasn’t their name, but one night the Mom and Dad got to fighting and the evening’s meal was suffering from the great Cinnamon shortage of the 1980s. They screamed for an eternity about the missing Cinnamon, and at that point they might as well have changed their legal names. For 10 year old me, I never knew them under any other name.
They were also hoarders, something we didn’t understand as kids, but they had a ton of shit piled up in their backyard. At some point, Jeremy and I were going through their crap and found a mother lode of plywood boards. This is where our lives as architects and building baseball stadiums began. At some distance, which may or may not have been 250 feet, we lined up the boards and created the 1980s crown of backyard lot luxuries. We had a friggin’ home run wall! Now, when we hit the ball, we got to hit an actual home run. We were extreme pull, extreme uppercut hitters. In my stadium, singles and doubles were worthless.
The slumps were the worst. I remember pitch after pitch from Jeremy, as I was hitting the ball all over the ballpark, getting nothing over the fence. I was hitting like Willie McGee. I wanted to hit like Hank Aaron. Finally, I broke out of the slump and slammed one way over the wall. The pitch was almost certainly grooved, as I am sure Jeremy was getting sick and tired of my continued pitching requests until I finally nailed one.
There had long been a For Sale sign where the lot met Date Avenue, something we gave little attention to until it was changed. It was replaced with one saying No Trespassing. We trespassed. We were kids, who cares? At some point, the sucker who purchased the property showed up yelling at us. Man, he was pissed. He stomped around without the least bit of admiration for our wonderful stadium, which counting our local parks, was something like the 7th largest baseball stadium in Yucaipa. It was certainly the largest without bleachers. The man informed us he owned the property. We weren’t impressed. The man informed us we had made a mess of his property. This really wasn’t true, we stomped some foxtails and made a damn home run wall. So…we still weren’t impressed. The man then told us we would be the ones cleaning up the mess we had in the property. I am not sure if that was the first time I let out an expletive. I think it was. For a young kid trying to grow up a little too fast, letting out a “Fuck You!” was quite liberating! Now….the man wasn’t impressed. This was the very normal setup where he wants to know who our parents are, because oh boy, we are in trouble. We pointed to the house between us, which was owned by a widow in her 80s. Before we left, we let you a couple more choice words. Our mouths were never washed out with soap.
We never saw “My Property Man” ever again, and that’s great, because his purchase of the land was a bust. We had heard people were going to build houses on the lot. Due to the fact that Yucaipa was not incorporated at the time, and the County allowed any kind of building, the empty lot drained down to a private road that wasn’t owned or had an Easement. Nobody would pay the guy to drain through his property, and the town was just getting off septic, so it didn’t have anywhere in the sewer system to go through the other property, so the Lot Of Future Generic Housing Tract Homes was unbuildable. Shit, as it turns out, rolls downhill. The owner of the private drive downhill did not want to accept the shit. And that was fine, since, we again had the 7th largest baseball stadium in Yucaipa.
We had actual spectators too. Our parents would occasionally watch and we really played hard. I had a chip on my shoulder because I was one of the kids that didn’t play Little League, so I always wanted to show I was good enough. One of the neighborhood kids named Brian was a very good pitcher. And around that time, I claimed the highlight of my athletic life as I took one of his best pitches and crushed it for an emphatic homer. He didn’t say much after I did that. I still would have sucked in Little League, but heck, Bucky Dent hit an important home run once too.
This story, like many, has a bit of a sad ending. We left the apartment on Date Avenue and moved to a house on Second Street. We lost touch with most of the Date Avenue kids, although in my old age I am still friends with Jeremy. The stadium housing the Date Avenue Baseball League of Yucaipa, California withered and became no more.
Yucaipa incorporated in 1989 and the City was on sewer shortly thereafter. The lot was resold, and that person built a grand total of 8 homes. They are the same boxy tract homes you see everywhere. Home plate is located, thanks to Google Earth, just about where the West cul-de-sac meets the sidewalk. I suppose we could play there today, and if we hit something that went through one of the windows at the homes to the East, we could relive those wonderful days like a beautiful midlife crisis should be. The backyard of what was the Cinnamons still looks like a landfill. There are 8 cars parked out front. Unlike my first baseball stadium, some things don’t change.