NORTH LIBERTY– The community of North Liberty has played baseball for nearly 100 years now; can there possibly be anything new?
Surprisingly, there is. The North Liberty Babe Ruth Baseball League– historically played through the summer– will now offer structured games in the fall as well.
A tip-off of the summer Tri-County North spring and summer league that encompasses Johnson, Cedar and Iowa counties, the new fall league will be offered for 13 to 15 year olds, with eligibility depending on the player’s birth date. Play will begin Sunday, Aug. 25, and organizers expect to hold between 20 to 25 games between the start date and the conclusion of the season Oct. 25.
“Kids just want to play ball,” said Eric Vandewater, chief of the North Liberty Fire Department, parent and volunteer coach. The Babe Ruth league has always been a step between NLYBS (North Liberty Youth Baseball and Softball), serving children ages four through 13 years, and high school baseball, which is not always open to every player, said league commissioner Jeff Brenner.
“There are lots of kids in the community that want to play, but once they reach junior high school, the opportunities diminish,” said Brenner. “In smaller communities, they have junior and high school baseball teams where all the kids make the team. Here, none of the junior high schools have baseball, and you have to be an elite player to play at West High School.”
West’s program only accepts 15 freshman players each year during their tryout process, Brenner noted. Kids ages 16 to 18 also have no organized league in this area, and traveling teams are very expensive, making that option prohibitive for many families.
While there are no tryouts, the fall Babe Ruth program will still be a semi-competitive league.
“We will try to get everyone into every game,” Vandewater said. “But Jeff talks to the coaches to emphasize they make every effort to get kids into the games, and model good practices. He made a comment that parents seemed to appreciate, ‘we know we all want to root for our own kids, but at this level, we should be rooting for the team.’ And several parents responded that rooting for the team makes sense.”
The league utilizes all volunteer coaches, and teams won’t practice regularly. Instead, the fall league will have a more informal flavor than the spring league, with games being played on Sunday against other North Liberty teams. As usual, though, games will be played on the Babe Ruth field at Penn Meadows Park.
The ball fields in North Liberty see a lot of action, and the need for field space only continues to grow as the population does likewise. Vandewater said the city’s parks department has been excellent to work with, and maintains the fields very well for the program. But with just one Babe Ruth-size field in town, baseball and softball lovers wait for the call as the city’s recreation department has made a pitch for more fields, or at least nighttime lighting, to accommodate older players. Lighting is a huge expense, both Brenner and Vandewater acknowledge, but it could mean more games for more kids.
“Lighting the Babe Ruth fields would make a huge difference,” said Brenner. “Ours is the only field in the Tri-County league that doesn’t have lights. When you are running five teams, with teams asking to rent the field next year already, well… it’s not that we don’t want to share, but people don’t realize how much in demand the fields are.”
And even though it is anticipated that the Iowa City school district may someday build a new high school in North Liberty, it is a misconception to believe that a new high school athletic field will be available to the public, said Brenner.
“High schools do not typically allow other teams to play on their fields,” he said.
What is clear, though, is the demand for programs like NLYBs and the Babe Ruth leagues.
“Baseball gets kids away from sitting inside, watching television and playing video games,” said Vandewater. “Baseball is more than competition; it builds character, creates friendships and gets kids involved in their community.”
And the Babe Ruth level helps kids develop as players, Brenner said. All three of the Tri-County North All Star teams– 13U, 14U and 15U– advanced to the state level, with games played the weekends of July 13 and July 20.
“Kids develop skills at different ages,” said Brenner. “It’s neat to see a kid come in at 13 years old who could barely throw to first base, and by the time they reach their third year they are a key player, and serve as mentors for the younger kids.”
And some of them are knocking it out of the park, Vandewater added.
“There are some great talent on the Babe Ruth leagues,” he said.
Even for the more advanced players, Babe Ruth baseball has lots to offer.
“It gives the more elite players a chance to be mentors for others, and it also offers the opportunity to try other positions, so they become much more of a utility player. That’s what keeps me energized,” said Brenner, who has been involved in the Babe Ruth program for 30 years. “I love seeing players develop down the line, and some even go on to make the high school team and become very key players.”
The fee for fall Babe Ruth registration is $70, which also provides a jersey for each player. Registration forms can be found on the league website at www.nlbr.org , and interested parties can email firstname.lastname@example.org , or call Brenner at 626-2606. Registration deadline for fall ball is Aug. 3.