The Bambino Would Be Proud
Eau Claire's Babe Ruth program excels, sending two teams to World Series
These are the salad days of Eau Claire baseball. We had the glory years of the Eau Claire Braves and the thousands who attended that era’s CRBL games, and that was a high standard to match, yet the sport still known as America’s Pastime (although that label now really applies to football) has achieved new levels of excellence in this part of Wisconsin. Some are high schoolers, some are adults hanging on, some are college players spending a summer among the pine trees honing their craft for the big-league Draft. Incredibly, when talkin’ baseball in the Chippewa Valley, perhaps the best story has slipped through the cracks of a fielder’s glove: Babe Ruth baseball.
The kids found themselves this season with yet more Babe Ruth League World Series appearances, following trips last year and in 2008 (the games were getting underway at press time). Rolling through the best of the Midwestern best in the Regionals (and dominating the state Babe Ruth tournaments to get there), the 13-and-under (13U) and 15U teams are off to win it all in Iowa and North Dakota, respectively. This is the talent soon to make up the city powerhouses at North and Memorial, to play on the state American Legion teams, and to maybe come back from their colleges to suit up with the Express.
“More often than not our travel teams go to the same tournaments as these so-called ‘elite’ teams and nine times out of 10 we come out on top when playing these teams.” – Nathan Kilness, Eau Claire Babe Ruth Baseball
Those aforementioned teams bring much to the table in terms of quality, with state tournament appearances and playoff berths already in the yet-to-be-completed 2016 year-in-review. You may be forgiven for not noticing one of the biggest baseball success stories in Eau Claire this summer, so let Athletic Aesthetic fill you in on what has made our Valley Ruthians so potent.
When Nathan Kilness is not helping coach UW-Stout baseball, he’s working with the Eau Claire Babe Ruth teams, and his diagnosis for the their success is a matrix of dedicated volunteers, consistent leadership, player development with effective coaching, and plenty of opportunities for anyone to play the game – including autumn baseball. Part of the issue getting kids to play is cost, something Kilness strives to remove as an obstacle: “We have made it a priority to make all of our programs affordable to everyone in the Eau Claire area,” he says. “Unlike in other communities, our families don’t have to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars to participate.”
The concept of the for-profit baseball academy has spread across the country and our state, charging hundreds of dollars with a promise of enhanced skills and a scholarship. What if your son wants to play and you do not have that wherewithal? Babe Ruth is for you. “More often than not our travel teams go to the same tournaments as these so-called ‘elite’ teams and nine times out of 10 we come out on top when playing these teams,” Kilness says.
Key for the teams is character. Along with the aforementioned factors of development, the teens are showing the maturity one might not expect from older middle schoolers and young high schoolers. Kilness notes the respect given the 15U team in out-of-state Regionals, earning the support of the hometown teams getting blanked on the field by Eau Claire. These boys were men – “Everything was ‘yes sir, no sir’ with them and it really won over the home crowd,” Kilness explains – showing the class of a champion at an uncommon age.
Knowing each other from school has helped to coalesce the 15U team, with the members supportive of their teammates. In Coach Kilness’ view, “No one on that team is a ‘ME’ guy.” Meanwhile, the magic ingredients for the 13U squad are a mixture of a similar interpersonal dynamic with a belief that they can match any caliber of opponent. The younger bunch often played 14U teams (while the 15U group took part in 16U and 18U tourneys), adding confidence with experience. “That level of determination you rarely see from a 13-year-old kid, much less a whole team of them,” Kilness says.
Perhaps the trend towards those for-profit academies has diminished the perceived stature of the local Babe Ruth programs. One would think the massive success – 16 state and four regional titles since 2004 – would answer that concern. Regardless of this year’s World Series result, the heart of the Chippewa Valley’s Pastime is beating strong with our younger teenage Bambinos.