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Just like T-Birds coach Bobby Corral, I was never a big fan of travel ball in general, and the Cooperstown Dreams Park experience in particular. After spending a week at the Cooperstown Dream Park, like Corral, I've changed my opinion.
The Decatur Thunderbirds have competed together for three years, learning about leadoffs and pitching from the stretch, and being part of a team. They did this while competing in house ball, fulfilling all their obligations along the way. Manager John Macklin and his coaching staff made sure of that.
They worked three years, learning baseball and working hard on fundraising. That seems like a lot of work for one week of concentrated baseball in the mountains of New York, but I haven't heard a complaint yet about the steep price.
The CDP staff puts on a first class tournament, with strict rules meant to protect the players as well as the integrity of the game. All participants, umpires and even parents receive an identification bracelet on the way in, and must have that with them at all times. Those entering and leaving the park must do so by vehicle, through a gate. All players must be with a coach at all times.
Each team had a barracks, chaperoned by the coaches. All teams had two uniforms, red and blue, all the same. Highly-financed California teams could not look any better on the field than a squad from rural Indiana.
There are 104 teams present for each of the 13 one-week CDP tournaments. Teams are from all over the country, and represent all skill levels.
"Probably 70 percent of the teams were comparable to us," stated Macklin.
"They were there for the dream, the experience. There were two teams (they played) that we could never touch. They could probably give some high school teams a good game.
"For our group, it was a culmination of three years of work, learning new techniques and all the other stuff that goes with regular baseball. It climaxed out there, and I thought we did well," he added.
The T-Birds went 3-3 in the three preliminary games before falling in the first game of the single-elimination tourney.
Meeting other 12-year-old baseball players from around the country, trading pins, and competing against them were important parts of the experience for the players. Being together for a week in less-than-ideal living conditions was special, if not challenging....