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Boys, Baseball and a Weeklong Dream Season

At this Cooperstown ballpark, summer turns every player into a hall of famer

July 22, 2002|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — Long before "mamma" or "dada," his first word was "ball." At 18 months, he crouched in front of the television set, wearing a potholder mitt for a glove, pretending to be the catcher for the Boston Red Sox. By 2, he was sighing rapturously when he passed his personal shrine.

"There's Friendly Fenway," he would say, his voice filled with dreams.

Now our left-handed pitcher was 12 and standing on a mound in the very place where the national pastime began. Behind him were the emerald hills of upstate New York. And surrounding him, on 14 perfect ball fields, were 1,100 other 12-year-old boys representing 64 youth baseball teams from as far away as Hawaii.

"The road here was really bad," said Dave, a father who accompanied those island all-stars. Their team name was Tsunami, and this week, the fifth session of a summer-long baseball marathon at the Cooperstown Dreams Park, the team from Oahu hoped to roll a tidal wave over all of us.

Dave admitted he had used the bad-road-from-Hawaii line only about 33 times since he and his team--along with several dozen bleary-eyed family members--flew first to Newark, N.J., then to Syracuse, N.Y., and then traveled by rental-car caravan to this small town west of Albany, N.Y. He stood in a lot packed with cars from Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, Utah, Colorado, California, Florida--a license-plate variety so vast it resembled a scene near national landmarks like the Capitol or better yet, Disneyland.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday July 24, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 78 words Type of Material: Correction
Invention of baseball--A story on a summer baseball camp in Southern California Living on Monday referred incorrectly to the date when, according to one sports myth, Abner Doubleday invented the game in Cooperstown, N.Y. It was 1839, not 1807.

After all, as more than one parent was to observe in the course of a week of nonstop six-inning encounters, this was Disneyland for baseball. "Ladies and gentlemen," a marketing consultant and former Little League coach named Lou Presutti announced at opening ceremonies modeled after the Olympics, "you are about to embark on a journey. A journey through life....Baseball life."

Wait. Baseball is life, right?

That, at least, was the assumption among our team, the mighty Heat of Hingham, Mass. Four years ago, our town's Little League coaches plucked one boy from each team of 9-year-olds to form an all-star summer travel team. Somewhere early in the team's career, head coach Bruce Issadore, an attorney in our small town, floated the prospect of playing in Cooperstown, where in 1807, Abner Doubleday is said to have invented baseball. The Dreams Park, designed as a mecca for 12-year-old baseball fanatics, was new then--and as parents, we were well aware of the vagaries of marriages, careers and youthful sports passions. Who knew where any of us would be after our kids turned 12?

But in a country of perpetual transition, we had settled, somehow, in a bastion of stability. Many families claim roots going back to the 17th century, when our seaport south of Boston was first settled. Some still live in homes from that era. Although there is little racial diversity, Hingham residents diverge in income, profession, religion. After four years, only one boy had opted off the team. The rest of us--players, parents and an astonishing assortment of siblings--devoted week after summer week to baseball.

Cooperstown became a goal and a mantra. The kids raised money selling pizza door-to-door. We designed trading pins and T-shirts. We thought we were hot--or maybe cool--until we arrived to find teams where parents, players and little sisters all wore matching satin warmup suits. Some teams brought flashy banners; one mom drove a super-sized SUV whose license plate read BAMM (for Baseball Academy of Mid-Michigan), the name of her son's team.

It was dizzying to see the assortment of sizes and shapes 12-year-old ballplayers could come in. One catcher from Colorado was so tall that when he crouched behind the plate, he was eye-level with our batters. An outfielder from Illinois provided our pitchers with the world's shortest strike zone. When one chubby kid from Florida stepped up to bat, we thought, easy out. Then he blasted the ball to the next county.

But in their Dreams Park--issued uniforms (red for home; blue for away), the sea of young athletes carrying bat bags and visions of big-league careers seemed indistinguishable. They were focused young athletes with so much in common that more than one mom confessed that she approached some boy in uniform, only to find it was not her son. Many of us got teary when they marched into Field One for opening ceremonies, lined up behind their coaches bursting with excitement. Teetering on the brink of adolescence, they radiated the last gasps of childhood--and telegraphed the incipient arrival of manhood.

Presutti, owner and founder of the Dreams Park, said he issued the uniforms to--in the best sense of the phrase--level the playing field. "They walk out on the field, it's all equal," he said.

Presutti was inspired to build the park after his father, a minor-league second baseman, exclaimed on a visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame here, "Every kid in America should have the opportunity to play baseball in Cooperstown."

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