It’s every baseball player’s dream to make it to Cooperstown, the birthplace of baseball.
For Mt. Lebanon’s 12U traveling baseball teams, that dream came true this summer.
In August, Lebo Prime 12U teams represented the Mt. Lebanon Baseball Association on a trip to Cooperstown, New York, to play in a once-in-a-lifetime tournament at the Cooperstown Dreams Park. Lebo Prime Baseball is the competitive and player/coach development division of the Mt. Lebanon Baseball Association. 12U players can’t be any older than 12 by the cutoff date of April 30.
What Is Travel Baseball?
Travel baseball is a form of youth baseball that is played in another city or state, and has a higher level of competitive play—usually in a tournament format—than local, recreational leagues. It differs from Little League in its higher level of competition and tournament structure, with more player development opportunities during the offseason.
For years, the Mt. Lebanon Baseball Association followed the Little League All-Star Tournament Team model of youth baseball. According to Ian Smith, association president, the shift to community travel baseball tournaments occurred sometime over the last two decades.
Less participation in local recreation leagues opened the door for club travel baseball teams to recruit players from across multiple communities—or states—to play travel baseball tournaments.
“Our Mt. Lebanon Baseball Association Lebo Prime travel program has taken a hybrid approach to creating competitive and developmental opportunities for our higher skilled players,” Smith said. Those players play in tournaments across western Pennsylvania, and the association hosts its own events in Mt. Lebanon. “Over recent years, we have added additional ‘milestone’ events that require greater travel and planning, such as our Cooperstown Experience at the 12U age group,” Smith said.
In 2019, the association’s board of directors decided to pursue a yearly bid to Cooperstown Dreams Park. One team was finally able to make it in 2022. Two 12U teams played this year, with plans to send two more teams in 2024 and beyond. Next year’s dates are already set for July 31 to August 6.
“We request to play the first week in August so that it occurs at the end of our primary tournament season for our Lebo Prime Travel program and serves as a great end of the season baseball experience for our 12U players and families,” Smith said.
The Lebo Prime travel program provides players who have demonstrated the necessary skill and desire with the opportunity to compete against players of similar skill levels from other communities. Lebo Prime fields a gold team and a blue team, determined by skill level and understanding of the game.
The Cooperstown Experience
Mikey Flynn, Cole Thompson, Graham Beasley and Kiernan Lahoda all had the chance to represent Mt. Lebanon in Cooperstown this year. “It was Mikey’s baseball dream come true,” said Jamie Flynn, Mikey’s mom. “I thought it was really cool to play teams from around the country,” Mikey said.
Graham Beasley agreed. “Cooperstown was really fun. You got to meet kids from across the country,” he said.
Cole Thompson had a similar experience. “Going to Cooperstown was a lot of fun. It was an awesome moment that I’ll never forget,” he said.
It was also Kiernan Lahoda’s most memorable experience and he “loved the fact that they progressed well by the end of the tournament.”
“I felt like we took boys to Cooperstown, but we came back with teenagers,” said Philip Thompson, Cole’s dad and head coach of the 12U Gold team.
“It definitely is a rite of passage for these kids. It is an experience they will all talk about for a long time to come,” said Sean Beasley, Graham’s dad and coach for the 12U Blue team.
“It’s an experience, not just another tournament,” according to Smith.
A huge part of the Cooperstown experience is pin trading, a phenomenon that started at Cooperstown Dreams Park in 1996 as a way to provide players and fans with a cultural exchange and life-enriching experience.
Teams and family members bring customized pins unique to their teams and communities.
Each tournament season, more than 1,000,000 pins change hands at Cooperstown Dreams Park, making it the largest youth baseball pin trading venue in the country.
Fundraising this year helped cover the cost of, among other things, 80 Lebo trading pins for each 12U player; 60 blue and 20 black and gold. The black and gold specialty pins were a limited edition that commanded higher trading value.
Fundraising also took care of ancillary expenses, like fees, shirts, supplies and team dinners.
The teams were pleased with the amount of community support they received. “The community was unbelievable. We can’t thank them enough for what they did,” Thompson pointed out.
Cole, Mikey and Graham offer this advice for the new group of 12U players and coaches that will take the field in Cooperstown next year: have fun and enjoy the moment!
“They all became good friends. To me that’s another part of this. I hope it’s a tradition that continues with all the other teams going forward,” Philip Thompson said.