Driving across the Eastern half of the United States with a passel of kids is an object lesson in land planning, transportation, parenting, patience -- and awe. A vast stretch of the drive arrows through open farm land, which begins to pitch and roll in eastern Ohio. More than one third of the drive from Chicago to Oneonta, New York -- which covers almost exactly 800 miles -- takes place within the state of New York, whose western and west-central valleys are shrouded in cloud and spotted with farms and moribund mill and manufacturing towns.
None of this prepares you for the odyssey that is Cooperstown -- a name which, in classic real estate practice, pours past the borders of the town proper and overflows onto the hungry hamlets that want and need to cash in. Such is the nature of baseball, and the industry it supports, that Oneonta, some 30 miles south of Cooperstown, sports a facility that calls itself "Cooperstown All Star Village" and which hosts a dozen week-long summer baseball tournaments for teams of 12-year-old boys from all over the country.
All Star Village's eight fields are immaculate miniatures of a major league facility: chalked-in foul lines embrace pea-gravel warning tracks and carefully mowed outfields around a pristine dirt-and-grass diamond. The drainage systems under these fields make it possible for games to be played even minutes after downpours -- a frequent occurrence in this moody, Appalachian ecosphere. Parents of kids on opposing teams are caged into segregated bleachers, next to the dugouts of their respective teams. This makes it harder for the parents to engage in confrontations while still being within earshot of their loved ones (and their coaches).
The fields sit at the foot of a steep hill, and tractor-drawn haywagons haul the fat and the disappointed back up the hill after games. The kids stay with their coaches in bunkhouses in the Players Village -- living, eating and sleeping baseball, away from the exhortations and scoldings of parents (and the prying eyes of pedophiles, I suppose). Parents are allowed into the village for one two-hour visiting period; otherwise, they see their boys only at games, or if they check the kid out of the village for a movie, a meal or some R&R.
For fun, the kids have a swimming pool, an arcade, and about 200 other kids from around the country to play with. There's serious work to be done, however, and there are batting cages where swings are readied prior to the 32 or more games played every day.
These are 21st century kids, though: they not only make prank calls, they do it from their cell phones, where they record the calls and upload them to YouTube. I'm not at all proud to say Gabe, hectored the helpless employee of a sandwich shop with his imitation of Stewie from Family Guy, then menaced someone else with a kind of Ricardo Montalban patois. The calls are preserved here, for some reason (click on "prank calls").
Each player comes to All Star Village with a supply of custom-made pins bearing his team's logo. The boys feverishly set about trading pins, collecting one from each of the 23 other teams in their tournament. I don't know who came up with this, but it's a fiendishly clever way to get the boys familiar with the other teams and kids (while stimulating the economy).
The games themselves are six innings long (or an hour 55 minutes, whichever takes longer). In our tournament, Gabe's team won 3 and lost 5, including two losses to the eventual tournament champion, the Palm Desert Toros, a group of 12-year-olds that probably could beat the Seattle Mariners straight up. California, Texas and Florida teams tend to play year round. The kids are terribly good, but one fears not only for their enthusiasm for the game but for their rotator cuffs, too.
Most kids are great sports and well-behaved -- "giving five" to opposing players who've just cleared the fences -- but there's inevitably at least one team that engages in trash-talking, much to the delight of its parental spectators. One team sported a first baseman estimated at 230 pounds, who hit a line-drive home run that surely would have killed any outfielder who tried to catch it. His tags on pickoff throws were so hard that kids on our team came away with bruises. Some teams' parents come equipped with percussion instruments and rehearsed cheers that can damn near kill your enthusiasm for the sport.
Every tournament is scheduled so that each team has time to make the pastoral journey up to Cooperstown proper and pay homage at the shrine known as the National Baseball Hall of Fame. The kids all visit the displays that feature their favorite teams (sadly, in our case it was the Cubs). The coach then led the kids to and let them climb the fence of Abner Doubleday Field, one of the oldest baseball fields in the U.S. and the self-appointed "shrine" to the game. "I knew it was against the law, but some laws just have to be broken," the coach said. The local constabulary was not amused, but the kids sure were.
The Hall of Fame itself was something of a disappointment. Located beyond a skein of t-shirt and memorabilia shops, the Hall overwhelms with its fussiness, and the PR bonhomie with which it breezes past the Steriod Era and its arch-villains to tout the sanitized saints of the game. Simply put, there's too much BS, and too much for kids to look at: too many shrunken baseballs and faded uniforms, too little video, and too little of the darker side of the big business of sport. The plaques to the Hall's members are mounted in a hushed, cathedral-like setting that's just short of comical in its sanctimoniousness.
Four of us dads rented a house -- really, it was just a trailer on a slab -- about seven miles from the baseball complex. Here, we were perched up high on 35 acres: us, a firepit, a 3-bedroom trailer and a grill. This afforded the primitive pleasures of drinking beer and criticizing the coaches, lounging under a canvas of stars and around a blazing fire, surrounded by a traffic-jam of fireflies. The flashes of the nightly thunderstorms, and the thrilling arc of the occasional shooting star, were no match for the fireflies, whose brilliance was the more astonishing because of its complete silence.
For fun we . . . watched baseball!, trooping into Oneonta to watch the Tigers of the New York-Penn league play at a revamped and intimate Damaschke Field (below) that felt more timeless and more present than Doubleday.
On our last night, we had all the kids and parents up to our double-wide. We barbecued dogs and burgers, guzzled beer (the kids stuck to Gatorade), and made s'mores over another roaring fire. To entertain themselves, the kids brought a bat and rubber ball and -- what else? -- played baseball until it was too dark to see. Watching them run improvised bases and smack the ball into the weeds and woods was a primeval pleasure.
What has stayed with me -- more than the baseball, the shrines, the kids and their careening joy at being the center of attention in a game of skill and chance -- is the unchanged and unchanging nature of the central New York landscape. It makes sense that baseball is enthroned here: there's nothing else. Like baseball, the landscape has cosmetic differences but an unchanging, almost regal nonchalance about it. Time moves its tiny metronome but is forbidden its grander gestures. The ghosts come out of the woods to watch every game.
It's been built. And come they do.