One Week of Baseball… A Lifetime of Memories
by Kathi Van Akin
Just five miles south of the Village of Cooperstown, NY, home of Doubleday Field and the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, you will find picturesque Cooperstown Dreams Park, home of the American Youth Baseball Hall of Fame invitational tournaments. Twelve and under baseball teams from across the United States, with some from around the world, travel to Dreams Park where they compete in week long tournaments. There are ten tournament weeks each summer with ninety-six teams participating each week. The summer culminates with weekly champions returning for the National American Tournament of Championship week.
New Fairfield, a small town in Connecticut, sends their 12 year old all star team to Dreams Park each year. Christopher Van Akin, an outfielder from New Fairfield, arrived at Dreams Park with his teammates, the New Fairfield Blackhawks, on a Friday evening in mid August, ready for a week of baseball competition and an opportunity to meet players from a variety of states and countries.
Once unpacked in the Baseball Village clubhouses, Christopher and his teammates scattered, ready for the traditional pin trading. Each team brings a collection of their team’s pin with the hope of trading with every other team to create an extensive and colorful pin collection as a keepsake of their week of play at Dreams Park. The New Fairfield Blackhawks designed a pin with a black hawk landing on a baseball diamond with a baseball clutched in its talons. To personalize the pin, each player’s name is displayed in baseballs along the 1st and 3rd baselines. This pin trading tradition allows the boys, and yes some girls, to meet players from all the other teams before entering into a seven game pool play beginning on Sunday morning and before being seeded for single elimination play beginning on Wednesday afternoon.
Not only were the baseball players a part of the pin trading, but the volunteer umpires joined in too. Each team was asked to invite an umpire for their week of play and Joe Nardini, Christopher’s cousin and editor-in-chief of NJ Baseball Magazine, graciously volunteered his time to be a part of this distinguished umpire program and to witness some of the most competitive 12 & under baseball in the United States. Once Joe unpacked his Dreams Park umpire package, he visited the Joe DiMaggio clubhouse, home to the New Fairfield Blackhawks for the week, and shared his umpire trading pins with a very excited team.
Living the Dream at Cooperstown Dreams Park
L-to-R: Christopher, Brother Michael, Umpire Joe
Michael Van Akin, Christopher’s younger brother, also got involved with pin trading, meeting many other siblings who came to cheer on their brothers and sisters. Michael quickly discovered which of the pins were coveted based on team rankings and design. He would find siblings at the concession areas and visited their games with the hopes of acquiring particular pins, including the pins of the top two teams. Michael also plays travel baseball and hopes to return to Dreams Park as catcher for his team. He certainly will be able to provide pin trading guidance for his team.
With mandatory safety and procedure meetings behind them by Saturday afternoon, the teams and umpires were ready for opening ceremonies. The symbolic first game ball was delivered to the main field by a gliding parachute as the umpires and teams entered with banners introducing their teams. Once all 96 teams and 100 umpires entered, the entire outfield was a sea of red and blue baseball shirts. Every player participated in the skills competition including: “King of Swat" home run contest, "Road Runner" base running contest, "Golden Arm" throwing competition and "Around the Horn Plus" with the New Fairfield Blackhawks scoring in the top 25%.
Sunday couldn’t have come soon enough for the players for the start of pool play, eager to disperse to one of the 22 fields to play ball. Each team would play two games on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday with games starting at 8:30 a.m., 11 a.m., 1:45 p.m., 4:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. Each team would play their seventh game on Wednesday morning to conclude pool play. For teams like the New Fairfield Blackhawks, the wait seemed unbearable with their first of seven pool games starting on Sunday at 1:45 p.m. vs. the Upper Deck Rebels from Virginia. New Fairfield came away with an 8 - 5 win, while the Upper Deck Rebels suffered their only loss in pool play, a big accomplishment for the New Fairfield Blackhawks for game #1. The Blackhawks lost their next two games to the WBL Sparks, the only all girls’ team, comprised of international all stars, to compete at Dreams Park, and the Scranton Miners from Pennsylvania who seeded one above the New Fairfield Blackhawks in pool play. They went on to win their next four games against the Timberline Hornets from New Hampshire, the Westchester Clippers from New York, the Sandwich Thunder from Massachusetts and the Middlesex Bulldogs from New Jersey. With a 5 – 2 pool play record and #24 seed, the New Fairfield Blackhawks made history for this small Connecticut town for most wins and the highest seed for New Fairfield at Dreams Park.
As the #24 seed out of 96 teams, the New Fairfield Blackhawks received two byes in the single elimination playoffs and took the field for what was to be the last time on Wednesday night against the Marblehead Magicians from Massachusetts who took the win. The boys had mixed emotions to see their playoff quest came to an end, but as they reflected on how far they had gone as a small town team, there was some relief too, knowing they had played well and represented their town with pride.
On Thursday morning, the playoffs continued until there were two teams left. Closing ceremonies would wait until the afternoon. With time on their hands, the boys followed the same routine as they had for several days already: they dressed in their Dreams Park uniforms, had breakfast as a team and then played ball – not on one of the 22 baseball fields with their big barrel bats, but on a grassy area with a rubber bat and ball, using their hats as bases. For these boys, baseball goes on.
As closing ceremonies approached, the umpires and teams lined up for the last time and paraded in the main field to be inducted into the American Youth Baseball Hall of Fame and to receive their commemorative ring. While some teams packed up and began their long trips home, the New Fairfield Blackhawks took their seats for a fireworks display and championship game between the #2 seed, the Connecticut Cardinals and #5 seed, the San Diego Stars. With a close game throughout and six home runs to excite the spectators, the Stars won the championship 11 – 10.
As a week of baseball at Cooperstown Dreams Park came to a close, Christopher shaped a lifetime of memories of team spirit, comradeship, and game achievements. His parents Rick and Kathi, brother, grandmother, uncle, aunt, and cousins, enjoyed his bursting smiles as he crossed home plate for his first run scored at Dreams Park, earned the first RBI of his team, executed a perfect sacrifice bunt, made a running catch setting up the double play at first base and executed many game changing catches in left. For Christopher, this one week of baseball equates to a lifetime of memories.