Steve Fiffer

I woke up at about 3 this morning with an ugly feeling in the pit of my stomach. I wish I could say, à la Ebenezer Scrooge, that a piece of undigested beef was the cause of my distress. I’ve certainly eaten too many ballpark hot dogs since arriving in Cooperstown, N.Y., from Chicago last Friday (though I’m guessing there’s not enough beef in these wieners to qualify for the ingredients label).

Or like Scrooge I’d like to chalk up my discomfort to a bad dream. But that would be impossible, too. I have been spending all my waking hours at the Cooperstown Dreams Park, a 105-acre complex of 10 baseball fields, 62 cabins, and several concession venues located about 15 minutes from the Hall of Fame. My 12-year-old son Rob is playing in a weeklong tournament at the park, and all the literature provided to the 624 players and 175 coaches (of which I am one) assures us that this is a place where all one’s dreams are realized. Presumably these are good dreams, or the park wouldn’t draw 48 teams per week to compete in different tournaments throughout the summer.

No. It was neither food nor spirits that awoke me, but rather guilt. My last words to Rob when I left him in his cabin last night at about 11 were not “Love you” or “Good game” or “You’ll get ‘em tomorrow.” Instead, playing coach, not father, I said, “You’re lifting your head when you swing.” What a way to say good night after a 12-year-old has played two tough ball games and, to boot, played catcher for three innings in a driving rainstorm. Shame on me.

By the time I left Rob and his 10 teammates from the Skokie, Ill., Indians All Stars, they had put a 15-9 defeat behind them and were acting, well, like 12-year-olds. I think some of us parents were acting about the same age—except we hadn’t put the loss behind us. Over the last four years, this talented group of kids has played so well and lost so infrequently that anything short of a commanding victory seems to surprise many of the moms and dads. Last summer the boys won the championship of the Chicago-area North Shore Baseball League to earn their trip to this prestigious tourney in the town where Abner Doubleday is supposed to have invented baseball (aside: The Doubleday Cafe, just down the street from the Hall of Fame, sells a T-shirt that reads, “Cooperstown, a drinking town with a baseball problem”).

Despite the Indians’ success back home, none of us—parents, coaches, or players—came to Cooperstown expecting to win the tournament. This summer, as in most past summers, each weekly winner has hailed from either Florida or California, where they play year round and seem to take the game quite seriously. A local innkeeper told us that last week a team from California flew in additional pitchers in the middle of the tournament. Our team has no additional pitchers waiting to be called up to “the show” as they say in the major leagues. We looked at the Dreams Park week as a reward to a great group of kids for working hard and doing well … and as an excuse to take a summer vacation to a beautiful area of the country—”the land of James Fenimore Cooper and the Glimmerglass Opera House,” my wife, Sharon, enthused before we packed the station wagon for the 800-mile drive.

It didn’t take long for our expectations, our dreams, to change. On Saturday night, after an opening ceremony that featured three parachutists in pinstripes landing on a baseball diamond, 30 team moms yanked from the stands to perform YMCA, and the procession of the players to the 1970s hit “Disco Inferno,” the competition began. Not games, but “skills events” designed to crown the fastest base runner, best home run hitter, and strongest thrower here this week. None of our kids placed high in these contests, but our team did exceptionally well in the sole team skills event, “Round the Horn.” Here nine team members throw the ball from position to position, stopwatch clicking. Our guys were almost perfect and finished with the second best time among all the teams.

This is a true test of fundamentals. Suddenly we were looking quite competitive. After a mistake-free 6-0 victory over the South Euclid, Ohio, Panthers in our first game yesterday, some of us began dreaming of finishing near the top. The boys were dreaming more of going to the nearby go-kart park or to the shop that customizes wooden bats complete with a player’s name and uniform number. The loss in the rainstorm to the simply named “Moorestown, N.J.” was decidedly not mistake free—and, dare I say, dampened the decidedly unrealistic dreams of an undefeated week and championship. (It’s interesting how parents refer to their kids’ teams as “we,” isn’t it?)

So, how will the boys fare today and the rest of the week? They will fare just fine. They will go to the Hall of Fame, the putt-putt course, and if some parents have their way, the Fenimore Art Museum and the local farm museum, too. Stay tuned to see how they do on the field. I can’t predict that, but I can assure you that when I say goodnight to Rob tonight and every night for the rest of the week, I’ll be telling him how proud I am of him instead of dissecting his swing.