As many of you know, our team recently returned from a week at Cooperstown Dreams Park in Cooperstown, NY. We played in the Youth Baseball Hall of Fame Tournament but the week was so much more than baseball. Our journey began in concept several years ago with small talk conversation in the dugouts, on the bleachers, at the parking lots of youth baseball facilities around Kansas City (not to mention a “meeting” or two held at local watering holes, seems like more enthusiasm and less roadblocks after 11pm.) Our journey officially began last September when I mailed a cashiers check for our team deposit and we began fundraising efforts. Our journey began with very high expectations and delivered more than I could have ever imagined. I think the experience was best described by a Team Mom as 1/3 Baseball Tournament, 1/3 Summer Camp, and 1/3 Disney Magic. I agree.
#OneThirdBaseballTournament – The event included 104 teams from near and far, including a team from Hawaii and a team from Canada. Teams ranged in competitive ability from small town recreational to big time competitive, with everything in between. However, every team wore identical CDP issued Game Uniforms and Warm-up Gear making it next to impossible to identify where a team may be on the spectrum of “for the love of the game” to “win or go home” except for maybe the teams with more than one remarkably larger than average 12 year old.
The competition began Saturday with a very impressive Opening Ceremony and Parade of Athletes. Although there was a few dull moments of procession, it was exciting to walk in the parade and, from all parent accounts, fun to watch. The skills competitions were held immediately after the ceremony. Individual Home Run Contest, Throwing Accuracy Contest, Speed Base Running Contest, and a Group Around-the-Horn Contest were held simultaneously around the facility on eight of the twenty two fields. Each team was allowed one participant in each event. Our participation may have been a foreshadow of the games to follow, competitive but not elite with finishes in the upper middle of the pack. I was very proud of our performances as this was undoubtedly the largest crowds they have ever performed in front of and perhaps the only time they will be individually competing in a team event.
We played six Pool Play games, two games each on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday. Our opponents were from Illinois, Texas, New Jersey, Alabama, California, and Pennsylvania. As it turned out, perhaps a bit of a tougher than average draw but probably a pretty representative mix of competition level from Good Teams to Great Teams.
Behind our first #GoKitGo and #JoeStrong moment of the week, a leadoff homerun in the bottom of the first inning, we won our first game. I will admit, that it was as much a feeling of relief as feeling of joy when the game ended. A feeling that we did belong here. A feeling that all of the hard work had paid off. A feeling that a great week was ahead of us.
Game Three was an emotional extra extra extra inning, that is nine innings in all, game that ended in a loss but provided two of the most memorable moments for me of the week. One was a very clutch throw from Left Field to Home Plate for a putout and one was a very athletic throw from behind the dugout to 1st Base for a putout on a Wild Pitch Strikeout. Although we were unable to get the out we needed or score the run we needed to come out victorious, it was the kind of game you enjoyed being a part of and one you think you will never forget…only for us, it was just the first of two classic games.
Game Six was the kind of game movies are made about (almost anyway.) Game Six was supposed to be a mismatch with our opponent needing a win to seal up Bracket Play Opening Round Byes and us locked into Bracket Play Opening Round 8am Start. Game Six included a 1:15 Rain Delay, a Full Blown Rainbow, and the craziest fog rolling across the facility many officials had ever seen. Game Six was Live Webcast so friends and family were watching…and texting me with advice…from computers and mobile devices across the nation. Games Six was worth every penny we fundraised, accepted from sponsors, and paid as parents. Game Six was incredible. We lost Game Six.
Before the Rain Delay, we held our own and had a 6-5 lead going into the fifth inning where, well, things fell apart a little bit. That will happen in 12 year old baseball. That will happen in Major League Baseball. That will happen in life. We found ourselves down 9 runs heading into the bottom of the 6th (final) inning. It was well after the 11pm anticipated announcement of the tournament bracket and we were the last game playing. 15 batters and 9 runs later, we found ourselves in extra extra innings again (eight this time) and making memories that will last a lifetime. As time goes by, the lead will grow, the comeback will become more magical, and all twelve of our players will have somehow scored the tying run. However, the feeling of overwhelming pride I had in our boys that night, the compliments we received from coaches and officials watching the game (waiting for the outcome to complete the tournament seeding), and the tears in my eyes now thinking about it will never be overstated.
Wednesday & Thursday was a large single elimination bracket tournament including all 104 teams in a seeded format with multiple byes for the top seeds. Our Bracket Play game was anti-climatic at best. In retrospect, we lost the 8am bracket play game at Midnight the night before. We gave everything we had to make the magical comeback and go on to lose in two extra innings. The championship game was exciting to watch with Virginia defeating Nevada in come from behind fashion. What a great way to finish the competition.
#OneThirdSummerCamp – Baseball aside, the week had a very old school summer camp feel to it. From drop-off to pick-up, the boys experienced life without an overdependence on televisions, mobile phones, or video games. Our team stayed in quarters that included eight bunk beds, six outlets, four windows, and one picnic table. We had just enough room to convert one of the beds into an office desk of sorts for the coaches. For some of the boys, this was the first time away from their parents for more than a night or two. For some of the boys, this was the first time to experience a week with three meals a day served in a dining hall. For some of the boys, this was the first time using group bath-house shower facilities. For all of the boys, it was a great group bonding experience.
We visited the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame as a team. What an incredible experience. Although we probably did not get to spend as much time in every room of the museum as some would have liked, everyone enjoyed the tour very much. I had never been there myself and must say that it was more than I expected and encourage all baseball fans to find a way to visit the museum at some point. In addition to the Hall of Fame visit, the team was able to take a scenic train ride and visit historic Doubleday Field.
Pin Trading. Who Knew? Without question, the biggest surprise of the week was the Pin Trading. We designed our Waldo Thunder Team Pin and purchased 24 for each player to trade. Some teams provided their players 104 pins in order to try and trade 1:1 and get a pin from every team. Other teams provided their players 2 pins each to try and keep their pin as a High Value rare find. The wheeling and dealing was incredible and built as the week passed. We did have a few negative experiences with stolen pins and hurt feelings from trades gone wrong, but all in all, the pin trading provided a great way for the boys to interact with other teams and players throughout the Players Village.
Would the week have been the same without the games and the competition? No, of course not. Would the week of been worthwhile just as a Baseball Summer Camp full of baseball related activities, practices, and teambuilding? I absolutely think so.
#OneThirdDisneyMagic – It’s hard to explain but the whole week, the whole place had a extra something to it. Something perfect. Perhaps best described as Disney Magic. Every employee from the owner, "Coach" as he was referred to by everyone, to the summer staffer interns selling candy bars and picking up trash were always friendly, always doing their job, always on message about CDP being for the kids and for the love of the game. From a corporate brand marketing and leadership perspective, impressive effort to get everyone aligned from top to bottom.
The facility itself is in unbelievable shape. All 22 fields were very well maintained. The practice areas were marvelous. The Players Village, Dining Hall, bath-houses, common areas, and parking lots were always very well maintained. Just like Disney, there seemed to be someone cleaning everywhere, all the time. It had a professional feel to it. Everywhere you turned, everywhere you went, it felt like whatever you needed was always close by and available. If not, someone could help you figure out a Plan B.
The event logistics, Baseball Operations, were first rate. Every one of our games started right on time with teams, coaches, fans, umpires, scorers, and photographers in the right place at the right time. I was skeptical of the Volunteer Umpire Program used by CDP where every team brings their own certified umpire for the week. However, I am now an advocate for how it is done. Using volunteer umpires from around the country added to our positive game day experience.
Some may find it hard to believe until you experience, but the Magic was hard to miss at almost every turn of the week. Magical…from the Opening Ceremony, the Skills Competitions, Pool Play Games, Bracket Play Tournament, Hall of Fame Tour, Scenic Train-ride, Doubleday Field, Players Village, Pin Trading, Media Day, Batting Cages, Wiffle Ball Games, to the Closing Ceremony where every participating player and coaches names were read aloud and rings were handed out.
My Dream Came True. The dreams of the twelve 12 year olds are all ahead of them, but I know they will never forget and will dream about their week at CDP for the rest of their lives.