The Savvy Traveler: Fields of Dreams
By Susan Burton
Editor's note: The Savvy Traveler is produced by Minnesota Public Radio and features firsthand experiences and observations of travelers around the globe.
(The Savvy Traveler) -- Every summer, hundreds of 12-year-old boys come to a place called "Cooperstown Dreams Park" to play in baseball tournaments.
The park is just a few miles from the National Baseball Hall of Fame. The tournaments, which are held almost every week from June through August, attract teams from all over the country. Parents come along for the ride; they stay in nearby hotels. But for the boys themselves, the experience is more like baseball camp. They stay in cabins with their teammates, eat meals together, and they play a lot of America's favorite game. Susan Burton visited the park and filed this report:
At Cooperstown Dreams Park, you can play two baseball games a day. You can have shaving cream wars in your cabin while your coach sleeps. You can belly up to the snack bar at 10:30 in the morning and order a Nestle Tollhouse ice cream sandwich. This is important because the food in the mess hall stinks.
Mike and Ryan, excitedly talking together: "...breakfast, the eggs are like spongy. The juice is, like, hard, it's frozen. The bacon is halfway cooked...God, we agree on a lot of things..."
Mike and Ryan are both 12. They've only known each other for a few weeks -- they met when they got picked for the same all-star team. Mike has been in a slump, so when I meet them, they're in the batting cage, getting in some practice.
Ryan estimates he thinks about baseball 95 percent of the time. Mike, who has a Yankee bedspread, a Yankee lamp, and pinstriped wallpaper in his bedroom, says that for him, it's closer to 99. The other percent of the time they think about girls. They have girlfriends, but the girls don't even understand what a home run is, so they definitely wouldn't appreciate what's so great about Cooperstown.
Mike and Ryan talking together: "...that it's where all baseball started...Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle...it's where everybody started -- even the Hall of Fame is in town...It's all baseball...It's the best town in the world -- I think, it is..."
The Cooperstown Dreams Park is 110 acres of baseball heaven spread out over the rolling hills of central New York. This summer, 704 teams of mostly 12-year-old boys came here to play in one of 11 week-long tournaments.
They flew in from all over the map. And for some of them, this wasn't the summer's only big trip.
A lot of these boys play what's called travel baseball. The oldest and most famous kind of youth baseball, Little League, revolves around your local community.
The whole idea of travel baseball is that your community is not enough. Why should you have to limit yourself to the place where you are? Why not join a team that will travel to tournaments around your state, or across the country, seeking out the best, most competitive play youth baseball has to offer?
Travel sports in general -- travel hockey, travel soccer, travel softball -- are increasingly popular. Travel baseball started picking up about 10 years ago down south in Georgia and Florida. Now, there are over a million kids playing it.
Some boys in travel ball play a lot of games -- 100 in a year. Maybe, to deflect criticism, many parents and coaches compare travel ball to school. We have special classes for gifted students, they say -- these are special teams for gifted players. As it happens, many of these gifted players are missing the first several days of school to play at Dreams Park this week.
In travel ball, the boys play major league rules. For instance, they can lead-off: edging away from the bases before the pitcher throws the ball. In Little League, you have to wait. The field is different, too -- the distance between the mound and the batter, and between the bases, is greater, requiring more speed and strength.
Tom Herman: "Bear down, now. Ball's gonna be put in play...be ready."
That's Tom Herman. He's here this week with a team from the San Fernando Valley called the West Coast Rebels. Travel baseball is all about seeing where you match up on a national level, and, like a lot of teams here this week, this team is curious about how they'd do against the Little League World Series champions: the team from Louisville, Kentucky.
Tom: "To coach Osborne of Louisville, we wanna play you; we will travel to play you anytime, anywhere. And this is serious: all these parents are willing to pay for a plane ticket and go anywhere they wanna go."
Seven of the players on this team also play on another team in a town near LA called Agoura. The Agoura team won something called the "Pony Baseball Bronco World Series" a couple weeks back. It's a huge deal. One of the teams's top players, Chad, is a short, tan, home-run king. In tonight's game alone, he hits three.
Joe Persuity: "You know, call it divine intervention -- it's just something that happens here."
This is Joe Persuity. He's a member of the family that founded Dreams Park several years ago. He says that many inexplicable things have happened to the people who visit here. The mythology of Cooperstown Dreams Park -- like the mythology of American baseball, in general -- includes a sense that these games are played on hallowed ground, that in this place, there are elements of the supernatural.
Joe: "There was a dirt devil -- you know what a dirt devil is? It's just a swirling wind of dust. And it was in the shortstop during a game, and it was just swirling around. And this boy's Godfather had just passed away, and the other boy thought that was his Dad. So, there was two players, and they had never hit home runs before, and they hit home runs. The godson got up and hit a home run, then the other kid got up after him and hit a home run, while that dirt devil was there."
After the boys hit home runs, the dirt devil rose from the field and flew over the fence.
This week at Cooperstown, I don't see any dirt devils. I do see some of the more standard features of youth sports: like sports parents who freak out when the ump makes a bad call.
Crazed sports parent: "You should be embarrassed -- he is embarrassed, look at him. Will you wake up?! It's an important game! You blew three calls already!"
The question everyone asks about youth sports is: Is it about the kids, or about the parents? The truthful answer is that it's about both. Especially, one father tells me, in travel ball.
Father: "There's a lot more than just the players; the parents have to be able to get along and you have to decide what level of cost you're gonna do, really. Some families aren't able to pay for coach, tournaments, uniforms, and all that stuff. Are you gonna have a scholarship, or is that just not going to work out for that family."
A mother named Marla tells me that an abundance of resources can also present a problem, for some families.
Marla: "They're investing thousands of dollars in personal lessons and coaching, and that's all fine and well, but let's keep it in perspective. Tomorrow morning, their interests could change. And those are the unhappy ones, where their interests change, but their parents' stays the same."
Marla's son DJ plays for the West Coast Rebels. It's the day after Chad, from the beach accident, hit three home runs, and the Rebels are still playing well, having yet to lose a game.
When Marla was born, her father played for the White Sox. Now, he's the pitching coach for the Montreal Expos. Marla practically grew up on the ballfield -- in the summer, she'd travel around with her dad -- and she remembers being bored out of her mind, counting every seat in Cleveland Stadium. A lot of mothers tell me that the priority is for their sons to have fun in Cooperstown. But Marla really means it.
Marla: "I said: 'If I spend $2,500 for this trip, and you don't leave here having fun, I'm mad. I don't really care about your wins and losses and your home runs and singles and doubles or triples -- you best leave here with a smile on your face or I'm gonna be like Chevy Chase in National Lampoon's...a lunatic for real.'"
For many families that play travel baseball, the tournaments stand in for vacations. Sometimes, this means that there are siblings in tow. I see dozens of sports siblings here this week -- tagalongs -- little sisters cartwheeling in the grass during the games, scurrying to meet their big brothers when they emerge from the dugout. One California mother, who has already been to tournaments in Tucson and Tennessee this summer, tells me that her family has been organizing their vacations around tournaments for the last several years.
For overworked Americans, even leisure needs to be structured, and this is a vacation with a purpose. These parents may not be at the office this week, but there is nothing aimless about their days away.
But though their time is tightly scheduled, the boys still have time for fun, especially up in the Baseball Village, where no parents are allowed -- for the entire week.
The cabins in the village are numbered and illuminated by lights shaped like baseballs. Each building has a giant-size baseball card hanging on an outside wall -- of Satchel Paige, Willie Mays, Don Drysdale. One team touches the Ted Williams on the side of the bathrooms for good luck before every game.
The most popular hang-out spot is around the board where the standings are posted every evening. A lot of the boys run out of the showers, shivering, towels wrapped around their waists, to see the sometimes disappointing news.
Player: "61st? Come on..."
The Baseball Village is modeled on the Olympic Village, and after showers and dinner, pin-trading begins. Every one of the 64 teams here this week brought their own pins to trade, and some boys are trying to get them all. The most popular way to display your collection is on a hand towel, which you can throw over your shoulder when you go out trading. Pins aren't the only thing the boys are exchanging this week. They all have extensive collections of muscle jokes that they're eager to share. When the boys get to the punch lines, they push up their sleeves, flex their biceps, and point at the resulting bulge.
Player: "Excuse me, miss, do you have any tape? Because I'm ripped."
Another player: "What kind of bike do you ride? If you rode a Yamaha, you could ride these mountains."
Like at summer camp, there are certain famous kids. There's the kid who his teammates swear is 12, but everyone suspects is 16, including coaches, who come up to him and say: "Excuse me, is there any chance you could drive me to Pizza Hut?" There's the kid in the shiny jacket who's always combing his Afro, Afro-man. And, there are kids with special talents:
Player: This guy Dusty, he can say any word backward that he knows.
Players: "Say Cooperstown!"
Players: "Say James Park."
Dusty: "Semaj Krap!"
Players: "Dr. Pepper."
Dusty: "Rd Reppep!"
But the most famous kids of all are the best baseball players. All week, a group called Team Pepsi is the buzz of Dreams Park. Pepsi sponsored the team and the players -- from seven different states -- were handpicked by a couple guys, including one of the owners of Dreams Park, especially for this championship tournament. People are also talking about the pitcher from the West Coast Rebels, Robert Stock. Robert is 12 years old and he throws 80 miles per hour, which basically is incredible.
The teams from states where the weather lets you play baseball year round dominate travel ball. But Robert's dad says that for ball players at this age, the bigger issue is puberty.
Robert's Dad: "You get a huge disparity right around 12 to 13. But once they get to 15, 16, everybody evens out, and it's the kids who you think aren't the stars, and the kids who are early maturers, hit their top."
One coach tells me that the year a boy is 12 is the best year for baseball. When the boys turn 13, the fields get bigger. Some of the kids can't compete. They drop out. There are more tournaments geared to 12-year-olds than to any other age, the coach says. It's the golden summer; they're still in baseball heaven.
Player: "We want a rally, a rally we want! We want we want a rally, a rally we want! We want we want a rally, a rally we want!"
It may be a golden summer, but the final morning of the tournament is awfully gray.
Larry: "It's about 55 degrees...and raining."
A dad named Larry and I stand under his umbrella talking, the rain pattering above our heads.
Larry: We all have flights to catch tonight, and we're hoping there's no rain delay. We really don't relish the thought of an over-the-top sports parent. I want to go home. I'm cold and tired.
Over at the West Coast Rebels field, Marla and the other parents are huddled together. Marla points out that a dad famous for wearing flip-flops every day is actually wearing shoes. The players' appearance is also altered.
Marla: "They're muddy, they've been diving, they've been sliding; we've been encouraging them to get dirty. Basically, they look like they've been playing in a rugby match."
But the Rebels are still playing well: phenom pitcher Robert Stock and home-run king Chad.
Marla: "There it is, he rocks it out of the park. Home run number 9! Way to go Chad!"
By the end of the day, Chad has hit even more home runs, for a week-long total of 13. Robert has pitched a one-hitter. And, the West Coast Rebels have won the National American Tournament of Champions.
Back in California, tournament play will start picking up for them after Thanksgiving. But this travel team is more than happy to get on an airplane before then. Coach Osborne of the Louisville, Kentucky, World Series championship team, are you listening?
In Cooperstown Dreams Park, I'm Susan Burton.
The Savvy Traveler ® is produced by Minnesota Public Radio