Skills competition at Dreams Park

Skills competition at Dreams Park

By Eileen Ogintz

Tribune Content Agency

The Canton, Georgia, families — all friends — had been planning this once-in-a-lifetime trip for more than four years and they were all smiles that the Big Week had finally arrived.

“This was the goal we set to be here together,” said Scott Stroup. “It’s great!”

But they weren’t watching glaciers calve on a cruise ship in Alaska or wildlife on safari in Africa. They weren’t enjoying a VIP tour at Walt Disney World.

They, along with some 1,250 families of 12-year-old Little Leaguers, including a smattering of girls from around the country, had converged on Cooperstown, N.Y., for a week-long invitational tournament at Cooperstown Dreams Park, which draws 104 Little League baseball teams each week to its 22 pristine fields spread out over 150 acres.

Family Travel Doesn’t Mean Always Taking the Kids

“It’s hard to fathom what this is really about until you get here,” said Brent Willis, whose son, Morgan, plays on the Bombers from Franklin, Tennessee. Their team has brought 45 adults and 20 siblings along for the ride. “The best part was seeing my son’s face as we drove in,” he added.

Here, rather than dropping the kids off for the week (they stay, play and eat on the property in bunks, along with their coaches at the cost of $850 each), parents, grandparents and siblings — at least 5,000 people each week — stick around this small central New York village (population 2,200), about an hour’s drive from Albany and 3-1/2 hours from New York City, attending every game and skills competition.

Cooperstown or Bust

Cooperstown or Bust

In addition to the players’ parents, The Canton, Georgia Cherokee Reds had also brought 10 siblings, five sets of grandparents and two aunts to join the fun at the big house they’d rented for the week. “We like each other,” laughed one mom, Dixie Harper.

My family was no different. We’d gathered to cheer my cousin Ethan Sitzman’s team, the Golden, Colorado Hurricanes, coached by his dad, Mike, and we were as floored as everyone else by the crowds and hoopla, including the souvenir tent reminiscent of a pro sports event.

Cooperstown, of course, is home to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, celebrating its 75th anniversary this summer with much fanfare and a new Babe Ruth Gallery, and the Glimmerglass Festival, which draws opera and music lovers, as well as a wide variety of museums (the hands-on Farmers’ Museum that depicts life on a 19th-century farm is especially popular with families). There’s the historic lakefront Otesaga Resort Hotel with its killer views, U-pick orchards (Middlefield Orchard for summer berries) and the chance to do everything in the surrounding area from hiking to canoeing to golf and tennis, even visiting the local Brewery Ommegang that welcomes kids to its cafe’s communal tables. A fun fact: Cooperstown was founded by the father of American author James Fenimore Cooper, who gained inspiration for his books, including “The Deerslayer,” from his boyhood here.

But for the families coming to Dreams Park, exploring Cooperstown has to be fit in between games, despite what bored siblings might want. They come from across the country, from as far away as Alaska and Hawaii, for the privilege of watching their kids play in the town where baseball began in 1839, said Mike Walter, the CEO of Cooperstown Dreams Park. The 13-week tournament, in its 19th year, is so popular, he said, that teams routinely are on waiting lists.

Golden Hurricanes chowing down

Golden Hurricanes chowing down

“Being here is a real common denominator — everyone loves baseball,” said Andrew Mullen, who played here eight years ago and was now back to watch a cousin. “Playing here was an awesome experience — the best tournament I’ve ever been to,” he added. Mullen, from New Jersey, now plays college baseball.

Some of the boys are on all-star teams; others, like my cousin, on community teams. That can make for some lopsided pairings, but the kids don’t care. They say it’s the perfect tween vacation.

“You get to play baseball every day and be free to have fun without having to do what your parents say,” said Colby Grant, from Jacksonville, Florida, playing for the Julington Creek Stars.

“The best part is meeting kids from all over the country,” added his teammate Luke Morningstar. The boys come with team pins to trade with other players.

“Of course, there are rules — everything from having their uniform shirt tucked in to having their cap turned the right way to getting up on time for breakfast.

That’s what makes this week as much about learning life skills as baseball, says their coach Ray Wilkins.

It all started with a family visit to the National Baseball Hall of Fame back in the 1970s. Wouldn’t it be great if all kids had a chance to play baseball here, Louis Presutti said to his son.

Louis Presutti Jr., a longtime Little League coach and successful New York businessman, decided his dad had a good idea and with private backing, was able to open Dreams Park with 10 fields in 1996.

At the opening ceremonies, complete with skydivers landing on the field with the American flag, Presutti tells the assembled crowd that the park was built to honor his father and his baseball-loving grandmother, who sent five sons to fight in World War II. “My grandmother loved the game and the Red, White and Blue,” he said. That’s why all of the uniforms are those colors.

“Let’s remember it’s a game,” he tells the boys — and their parents. “It is a game fought fiercely on these fields … but a game.”

Unfortunately, the Golden, Colorado Hurricanes didn’t win many games, and there were some rain delays, but in the end, that didn’t matter. What mattered is that it was a week they, their parents and grandparents, won’t forget.

Money well spent, said Cathy Willis, from Tennessee. “They’re only 12 once.”

(Wherever you’re traveling with teens this summer, encourage them to enter the Family Travel Forum Teen Travel Writing Scholarship contest that I support. They could win $1,000 for an essay with photos or video on a trip they’ve taken in the last five years, or, at the very least, get some practice for those college admission essays. Entries are accepted until July 27.)

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