PLAYING for the fun of it

Sunday, May 20th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TULSA, Okla. (AP) _ Pat Goggin likes to tell a story about the first game of the season.

A batter from the other team sent the ball soaring deep into left field where it dropped by the fence line. Goggin's left fielder rushed toward it. And so did the center field player.

And the third baseman. The shortstop. The second baseman. The right fielder _ pretty much Goggin's entire team.

If the coach remembers right, the first baseman was the one who finally emerged from the pile with the ball in his hand. Then, with his little legs running themselves into a blur, he made a beeline for the infield as if to score a touchdown, the rest of the pack chasing behind and trying to tackle him.

``That's T-ball,'' said Goggin, coach of the Sand Springs Eagles. ``Sometimes it can be ugly. But hopefully it is always fun.''

When the players are mostly 5 and 6 years old _ and the bats are still taller than they are _ nobody expects the game to look pretty. Batters strike out against a ball that isn't moving. Outfielders collide with each other. Runners trip over third base.

Ugly, yes. But in a cute way.

After each game, some of his players will ask Goggin who won. And if the Eagles did, Goggin will tell them ``We did!'' And if the Eagles lost, Goggin will tell them ``We did!''

``At their age, it's important just to come out here and have a good time and not worry about winning or losing,''

Goggin said. ``Maybe somewhere along the way, they will learn some of the fundamentals of the game. But if not, we still had fun.''

National pastime: As they were moving into the White House earlier this year, President Bush and his wife took a tour of the sprawling back lawn. ``We sure have a lot of space out here,'' the president told his wife, according to press accounts.

``Wonder what we could do with it?''

The next thing Laura Bush knew, her husband was having a T-ball field built just far enough away from the back porch to keep the fly balls from crashing through the windows.

In the months since, White House officials have signed up to coach teams. Players have been known to get after-game snacks straight from the first family's kitchen. And the sport itself has enjoyed a long round of national publicity.

It seems that the president _ an avid baseball fan and former owner of the Texas Rangers _ hopes the White House diamond will help renew interest in America's favorite pastime. Supposedly, the game's long-term future is in doubt because the younger generation would rather play soccer or Nintendo or something.

If that's true, there's no evidence of it in Tulsa.

Pick an evening, and there's a good chance a T-ball game is going on somewhere in the metropolitan area.

Maybe in Broken Arrow's Indian Springs Park, where more than 300 players a week participate in games. Or in Sand Springs' River City Park, where the Eagles play once or twice a week, and more than a dozen other teams keep the fields busy on other nights.

Tulsa supports 20 T-ball teams with a total of more than 240 players, who go to parks like Newblock and LaFortune.

By now, halfway through the spring season, the games have started to resemble the sport's big brother, baseball. The batters run the bases in the right order. The fielders stay in their positions. Some have even learned to catch the ball.

But unlike most suburban leagues, the Tulsa teams still don't bother to keep score.

``We try to emphasize that the point is learning the game and having a good time,'' said Leann Crawley, coordinator for youth sports in the Tulsa Park and Recreation Department.

``Nobody wins. Nobody loses. We just don't keep track at all''

Which is just as well, because it might be hard to count high enough.

In the Tulsa league, every player gets to bat in every inning, regardless of the number of outs. And every batter gets to take six swings at the ball, which is perched on the tee at perfect batting height.

Then, even if the player strikes out after half a dozen tries, the batter still gets to go to first base. And with the astronomical number of errors in the outfield, nearly every runner makes it across home plate.

``They can start competing against each other when they get older,'' Crawley said. ``Right now, we want every player to go home with good self-esteem, proud that they got out there and did their best.''