School is out and summer has arrived, time is abundant and the sun never seems to go down; a perfect storm for children to fill baseball fields across the country. Pass by most of the spacious greens now and they’re rarely used unless you are part of the elite who can afford the exorbitant rates collected by travel teams across the country. Securing not only the pocketbooks of parents nationwide, they’ve taken a firm grasp of the permits that control the access to these fields.
Standing in the face of these ever-expanding travel teams is David Thompson, a crusader for his town’s local Babe Ruth program. Thompson is the central figure in Tom Swyers’ novel, “Saving Babe Ruth,” which is based upon a true story of one parent’s fight to keep the field that has served his community so dearly for the continued use of all of its residents, instead of the exclusive group of the outsider travel program.
This war of sorts is playing out in communities all over the country, with these hyper-selective travel teams starting at earlier ages, creating a chasm that are causing the community based programs to suffer. Suddenly at age 10, the travel team coaches are telling young Johnny that he is too good to be playing for the “in-house” league, as his career trajectory will be poisoned by playing with such inferior talent. Fields are going empty because these travel teams have swallowed the permits just to keep the recreational leagues from “ruining” their playgrounds.
Swyers documents how Thompson’s program is suffering from the presence of Rob Barkus and his Elite Travel Baseball League. Barkus is working in concert with the high school program to stop the kids from playing Babe Ruth, and monopolize access to the Babe Ruth fields. Very quickly Thompson realizes that he is not involved in a mere dispute, but an all out war. Barkus wants it all from Thompson, his fields, his players, and his program, stopping at nothing to turn the entire community against him.
At times Thompson is quixotic in his quest to save the program, even risking his own marriage to defend his territory and clear his name. Often he is met with indifference from parents who are blinded by visions of college scholarships to the effects that travel baseball is having on their community; travel ball is turning America’s pastime into an elitest pursuit. Yet despite the roadblocks put in his way, Thompson works feverishly to defend the opportunities of the silent majority, the kids.
Baseball fans will enjoy the passion that Swyers has put into Thompson’s efforts to keep the Babe Ruth fields available for kids of all levels. Parents are fighting this battle in every neighborhood, watching their local programs dwindle to benefit the select few playing for the travel team. Swyers reminds us why this is a war worth fighting; youth baseball is a sport that should be played by everyone, not just those with the financial means to wear embroidered uniforms and matching warm-up suits.