Story by Justin Jarrett | Photo by Beth Mitchell
If you’ve ever wondered, as I often have since childhood, what happens to the old-timey baseball players in “Field of Dreams” after they walk back into the cornfield, I’ve found as satisfying an answer as any in the notion that they walk out the other side into Cooperstown Dreams Park, a sleepover camp in upstate New York, masquerading as a baseball tournament (or vice versa) just up the road from the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
It’s something like heaven for baseball-loving 12-year-olds.
I experienced it firsthand recently with my son and the Bluffton Waves team I founded when he was 8. We made the pilgrimage in June, spending a week bunked up as a team in cabin 45A, with a giant baseball card featuring Cardinals legend Bob Gibson posted outside the door, and eating, sleeping, and breathing baseball.
In fact, most of us only left the Baseball Village twice. I’d be lying if I said we had the full Cooperstown experience, but one of those outings was taking the entire team to the Hall of Fame, which included a private talk from an outstanding docent, an emotional and inspirational short film that made me feel like a 12-year-old again, and walking through the incredible museum that illustrates the history of the game that brought all of us together.
Our head coach, Aaron Jackson, gave the players homework before the field trip: To return with three things they learned at the Hall. To their credit, most came back with far more than three despite the swiftness with which they absorbed everything.
Opened in 1996, Cooperstown Dreams Park attracts hundreds of baseball teams from around the country to the cradle of the sport each summer for a series of weeklong camps accompanied by an epic tournament.
The games are played in enclosed stadiums with 8-foot solid green fences that make a satisfying thump when roped with a line drive and majestically swallow up home run balls as they disappear over the wall.
It’s a hitter’s paradise — the 200-foot markings on the outfield walls are generous and there are no batter’s boxes, so hitters can crowd the plate and take chances slugging homers.
We won more games (4) than we lost (3) with two of our losses coming against teams that made the final 16 of the 78-team tournament, but we gained so much more.
The Baseball Village was teeming with more than 800 pre-teen ball players every day, and in between games they intermingled to trade team pins, play Spikeball or take part in one of about 20 concurrent Wiffle ball games taking place at any given time.
“The team from Hawaii is on the other side of our bunk,” said one player from the Sandy Springs (Ga.) Billy Goats. “I got one of their players’ number and we’re gonna be friends. How cool is that?”
Indeed, baseball friends can come from the most unexpected places. Our first loss of the tournament was a heartbreaker against Dry Pond (N.C.) Baseball, which happened to be in the bunk directly across from ours.
But two days later, after we had been eliminated, our boys bounced out of bed at the break of day and asked to go watch the Dry Pond game in the round of 16 against the No. 1 seed.
They spent the entire game hooting and hollering from the outfield berm — “We’re the Dry Pond student section,” they told me — and joined the team huddle after a tough loss to the Texas Sun Devils.
“Coach Justin, I thought Dry Pond was gonna be our mortal enemies,” our shortstop, Austin Broene, said. “But they turned out to be our best friends.”
Thanks to the bonds formed by the great game of baseball, sometimes those are the same thing.