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Southlake Style

A Summer to Remember: Cooperstown Bound

May 05, 2017 04:09PM ● By Ashley Pape

By Gina Tagliarino

Let’s take a minute and think back to the summer joy of America’s favorite pastime here, in the place where when you were 12 years old. What highlights come to mind? An extra-large scoop of ice cream? The world’s highest cannonball splash?  Plenty of grass and dirt stains? (Sorry, Mom!) For one Southlake 12U baseball team, the summer of ’17 will always be remembered as the one when dreams came true. This is the summer the Dragon Dreamers will set out for Cooperstown Dreams Park—site of the American Youth Baseball Hall of Fame—alongside two children, dubbed assistant coaches, with special needs. And what a summer it will be.

CREATING THE DREAM

It all started with a simple idea. Many years ago, New York’s Coach Lou Presutti and his father visited the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, the home of baseball, when a thought struck them: What if every young baseball player could experience the the sport originated? After coaching baseball for 34 years, Coach Presutti and his wife Linda decided it was time to turn this idea into a reality, opening Cooperstown Dreams Park in 1996 to the excitement of baseball fans and players across America. And so, a new tradition was born.

As former New York residents, Southlake mom and Dragon Dreamers operations manager/treasurer, Michele Ciccone, and her husband and Dragon Dreamers coach, David Ciccone, have long been friends with the Pre- sutti family. They liken the experience of the park as on par with the country’s most-coveted theme parks. The couple had the opportunity to bring their own sons to the park as young players.

“We like to call it the Disney World for baseball,” Michele gushes. “You feel like you’re in a different time and place when you’re there. Coach Lou had two phi- losophies when he built the park: to dream dreams and to be your own hero. This is an opportunity for kids to be proud of what they’re doing.”

For the past decade, hundreds of baseball teams have traveled to Cooperstown to enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime week where they truly experi- ence what it’s like to be a Major League Baseball player. They live on campus, do their laundry onsite, and of course, play ball on the iconic elds where baseball began. The only catch? Players must be 12 years old or younger.

“It’s the last year of Little League,” Michele explains. “A lot of kids after age 12 don’t con- tinue with baseball because it gets really serious and competitive. It’s kind of the last hoorah for these kids.”

BUILDING THE TEAM

But this year, it’s also the beginning of some- thing bigger ... whether it’s a deeper interest in the sport, a greater understanding for others and sometimes, even an unexpected friendship. That’s because this year marks a connection with players with special needs—Sam Kline and Wyatt Kwentus have been invited to join the team as they practice, play, and well, eat plenty of pizza (as Dragon Dreamers coaches David Ciccone and Dave Gamache can attest) while bonding as a team headed for Cooperstown this July. And it began, once again, with a little inspiration from the late Coach Lou Presutti himself.

“Coach Lou was here for the opening day of the Miracle League of Southlake in 2015,” says John Slocum, secretary of the Southlake Dragon Dreamers. Slocum played a key role in the development and successful launch of the city’s league, and knew its players were destined for Cooper- stown. It just took a little teamwork.

“In his speech, Lou indicated that he wanted to develop a relationship between Cooperstown and Southlake,” Slocum explains. “We got in touch with [Southlake mayor] Laura Hill, drew up some guidelines and estab- lished a relationship between five groups: the Miracle League of Southlake, Southlake Baseball Association, City of Southlake, Southlake Carroll School Board and Cooperstown. The ve groups agreed to work together to put a program in place where kids with special needs were involved.”

Now, two years later, the hard work is paying off. Kline and Kwentus have already made a great impact on the Dragon Dreamers, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, Coach Ciccone says this kind of open spirit was one of the quali cations for being chosen for his 12U team.

“We looked at their attitudes, their personalities, their willingness to learn,” explains Coach Ciccone of the tryouts. “And a critical part was buying into the understanding of what the team was all about. It’s more than just playing baseball. We told the parents we’re going to be buddies with the Miracle League.”

The result was a group of kids—both boys and girls—as passionate about the sport of baseball as about growing as people. Southlake mom Lisa DeBord has already seen the impact the program has made in her son Walker’s life, striking up new friendships along the way. When given the choice to play for a variety of established teams in the area after his Triple A/ Majors team disbanded, he chose the Southlake Dragon Dreamers because of its Miracle League connection.

“For almost all of Walker’s life, we have known that he was an old soul, deeply connected to God and those around him in profound and unexplained ways,” DeBord says. “On the rst day of practice, where the Miracle League players were present, we watched as he befriended the kids and engaged and encouraged those around him. He told us, ‘I want them to feel like they are an important part of our team.’”

This inclusive attitude makes this year’s path to Cooperstown so special. Sure, it’s nice to win, which the team was successful in doing even dur- ing its rst game together. But the memories made during movie nights at the coaches’ homes, the dinners out as a team and the time spent learn- ing by example as they watch Southlake’s high school baseball teams cheer each other on are truly life-changing.

“We’re more than just a team going to Cooper- stown,” Michele explains. “Our goal is to have this be more than just baseball; we want every child to be involved in everything—the practices, fundraisers, tournaments, pizza parties and social events.”

EXPANDING THE MOVEMENT

Dr. Mary Johnston, executive director for special programs for Carroll ISD, also assisted with select- ing the coaches with special needs. “This is a great step in involving all players in the game of base- ball,” she says. “I hope this summer encourages Cooperstown teams from across the United States to include students with special needs as coaches and part of this unforgettable experience.”

Ideally, teams including players with special needs would be welcomed to Cooperstown during the same week, having the unique opportunity to play against one another for an unforgettable experience.

And for those Miracle League players who aren’t able to visit Cooperstown? They’ll still get the chance to enjoy that Disney  World feeling, as players from the Miracle League walk through a replica arch each October in Southlake during the season’s closing ceremonies, just as each player in Cooperstown is inducted into the Youth Baseball Hall of Fame. The arch, built as an Eagle project from Boy Scout Troop 928, brings the whole experience full circle.

Mayor Laura Hill is looking forward to her trip to Cooperstown this July and has been a part of this journey since the beginning. But she’s not at all surprised that it has come to fruition.

“People are very sup- portive of baseball in our city,” Mayor Hill says. “We love embracing all of our youth in the Dragon tradition. This commu- nity has always been so supportive of helping any child of any ability achieve their dreams.”

Dream big dreams. Be your own hero. These mantras started it all, and Coach Presutti’s once
simple idea has become 
a mission that is certain to take Southlake’s—and the country’s—youngest baseball players further than even he could dream.