Some of the kids who spent their childhoods playing in the Babe Ruth League have made it to the majors. Cal Ripken Jr., Mike Piazza, Jim Palmer, Randy Johnson, the list goes on.
Only a handful have made a return trip, an exclusive group that Ohio Valley manager Austin Kearns now joins.
Kearns was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds as the seventh overall pick in the 1998 MLB draft and would make his major league debut in right field during the 2002 season. Over the course of an 11-year career in the majors, Kearns would play for the Reds, Nationals, Indians, Yankees and Marlins. But before any of that happened, Kearns was a 12-year old playing in the Babe Ruth Bambino league.
"It was 1992 and I think our regional was in Zanesville, Ohio,” Kearns said. “And then the world series was in Alachua, Florida. And that's back when it was just [a] double elimination tournament. We had a pretty good tournament, we went 4-0, and we beat Miami, Florida in the finals."
A member of the Lexington, Kentucky team, Kearns would not only win the championship, but also earn honors as one of the two 1992 batting champions, boasting a monstrous batting average of .750.
"A buddy of mine, we coach together during the regular season - we actually tied for it, so we both won it,” Kearns said. “It's always cool when you get to share stuff with your teammates too, you probably don't realize it as a kid, but looking back on it... it's the memories that you had at that age."
Kearns didn’t stop playing after that victory. He would enter the 13-year-old tournament the following year, where his undefeated streak was thwarted by the kids from Taylorsville, Utah.
"Our third game was against Southeast Lexington.” said Terry Rachiele, who coached the Taylorsville team. “Very tight game, very tight. I don't recall what position Austin Kearns played, I just know that every kid on that Southeast Lexington team was a top notch athlete."
Kearns and his teammates would battle back from the loss in the loser’s bracket and make it all the way back to the championship game. However, they would once again lose to Taylorsville, finishing the tournament in second place. Kearns played in another Babe Ruth tournament, but fell short of the championship with a third place finish.
For Kearns, however, the focus isn’t on his own accolades, but the kids he’s here with today. He leads his hometown team from Lexington, Kentucky, who won the tournament all those years ago. Now, he is hoping to build a team that can enjoy similar success.
“They're just a great group kids,” Kearns said. “And we're just trying to teach them some fundamentals, some baseball stuff and just help them as they're getting ready to take this next step and move up to the bigger fields. It's a great group of kids and I'm just really looking forward to watching them."
Everyone involved in the Babe Ruth league, players and staff alike, see the league as an opportunity to grow, learn and have a great time — win or lose. In the process, however, audiences get a glimpse into the future of baseball. Audiences like Robert Faherty, the Senior Vice President for Babe Ruth League, who watched Kearns in his Babe Ruth heyday.
“We knew we were on the right track,” Faherty said. “We knew we had the ability to let kids play a game and have an opportunity to show that they can be just as special as what you see on TV. Top ten plays are being made every day out there.”
Not every player in the Cal Ripken series or on Kearn’s team will make it to the MLB like he did; many might not play baseball in college, or even high school. But as far as Kearns is concerned, the Babe Ruth league is more than just a potential feeder to higher forms of baseball like the MLB, it’s an experience all its own.
"Obviously, winning the world series, that's something we'll never forget,” Kearns said. “It's a bond that, it sounds silly, but you made [it] as 12 year olds with some guys who are buddies and you have those memories for the rest of your life...It kinda gets lost in the big picture how baseball brings so many people together, as far as kids, and families, and friends.”