Sunday feature: 25 years ago, Wellington joyfully held itself a Midwest Babe Ruth Regional tournament

The 1995 Wellington 13-15 year old Babe Ruth team. Click to enlarge.

by Tracy McCue, Sumner Newscow — Not to sound old or anything, but 25 years ago to this day, I was having a lot more fun.

And so was Wellington.

There were no cell phones, no pandemics, no mask mandates, no race riots, no mean-spirited social media posts, and politics were things to think about in November.

In August 1995, my two biggest concerns were a 9 1/2 month pregnant wife and a Wellington Babe Ruth baseball tournament.

Wellington hosted a 13-15 Year Old Midwest Plains Babe Ruth Regional Baseball Tournament that year. Wellington, perhaps the ultimate Babe Ruth town in Kansas history, had hosted many district and state tournaments and even hosted a World Series in 1971.

But this was bigger.

For me, looking back now, it is without a doubt the happiest memory I have as a Wellington Daily News reporter.

But it wasn’t just me. It seemed like just for that fleeting moment, everybody, was, well… happy — almost a foreign concept these days.

Babe Ruth baseball is almost non-existence these days.  But in 1995, it was still the summer sports league of Wellington’s existence. It started with a Kenny Roads Tournament, that morphed into Wellington rec-like ball with teams like the Banks, Kiwanis and the Lions — which stood for “Losing Is Our New Status,” (an old joke recycled from yesteryear, sorry).

Then the best of those players became all-stars playing against rural all-stars from other communities.

From the onset, this tournament was already a big deal. It was to host state champions from Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, Iowa, Colorado, South Dakota and North Dakota. The winner was going to the World Series. The amount of baseball talent coming into Wellington that week was, to say the least, significant.

But Wellington also had significant youth baseball talent of its own. Nate Cornejo, who would eventually pitch for the Detroit Tigers, was a 15-year-old prodigy at the time. And he was surrounded by players, who simply loved the game.

Wellington had just pulled off a high school state championship. But these boys, still freshmen and sophomores, were thought at the time to be even better.

It was inevitable before the tournament even started that there was going to be some great baseball being played at Sellers Park that week.

And it wasn’t just the baseball itself. The complex was about to be renamed Hibbs-Hooten field. The field was getting a new infield with red-shale fast-drying dirt. A new scoreboard was about to be installed. The grandstands itself was getting a new coat of paint. And extra bleachers were brought in for the occasion.

Wellington was hosting a party, much like other cities host a Super Bowl or a Final Four.

But for all the excellent pre-planning, the tournament had one other notable quality going for it…. luck.

Wellington celebrates a home run by Ben Nance in one of the seven games played by the local all-star team in that tournament.

The lead-up days

Let’s not be naive about 1995. We weren’t Mulberry. Most people had cable, divorce, nearby teenage pregnancy issues and rotten morals. Internet was about to explode, and our warped minds were ready to participate.

And small-town baseball wasn’t the eating peanuts-and-cracker-jacks variety either. Babe Ruth was in a real fight for its soul against the rising trend of travel league baseball. Most of Wellington’s good athletes weren’t sticking around to play summer league rec ball. They were part of the Westurban Baseball league in Wichita and were playing more than 60 games throughout the summer.

It was apparent from the onset, the only way this tournament was going to reach its potential, is if this particular group of 15-year-olds played Babe Ruth Baseball played. Otherwise, the tournament would have been a battle of state champions from other states, soon to be forgotten from the memories of everyone but the local organizers.

At the time, the Babe Ruth organization was led by Tim Fairbanks and David Carr. There was considerable effort to get that group of boys to play in Wellington for that particular week. The boys included: Cleitus Ross, Tyler Biles, Justin Blake, Jeremy Struble, Danny Crittenden, Jason Cadek, Paul Mangan, J.R. Metzen, Ben Nance, Cornejo, Rich LeMaster, J.D. Beck, Michael Meeker and Josh Fairbanks. Ronnie Metzen was the head coach. Mardie Cornejo and Kurk Crittenden were the assistants.

So the organizers came up with a compromise, rather unheard of at the time. Those players would play like three innings of Babe Ruth regular season baseball then pick up and leave to play in the competitive Wichita league much to the chagrin of those players (and parents) left behind. It was a summer of controversy which would have made for interesting dialogue on social media today.

All that earth-shattering controversy was soon forgotten on that Saturday evening, Aug. 2, 1995, when the Wellington’s all-stars got on the field for that tournament.

2,400? Well, maybe. There were sure a lot of people at the newly christened Hibbs-Hooten field.

According to my writing, there were 2,400 people in attendance at Sellers Park that night for the opening ceremonies. I’m not sure a packed, overflowing Sellers Park could host such a crowd, but that’s what I wrote.

They had a big ceremony that night as the name was officially renamed Hibbs-Hooten Field. Loren Hibbs and Louis Hooten were two legends who grew the sport of youth baseball in the community. Then Gene Stephenson, the Wichita State University baseball coach, threw out the first pitch. The tournament was already a big deal.

Then Cornejo had come to the plate. He was already the town phenom but few people had actually seen him pitch locally other than the few high school parents watching during the cold, wet spring before. And they sure weren’t seeing his best stuff in rec ball.

Cornejo would throw seven consecutive fast-pitch strikes, right down the middle of the plate against Wellington’s first-round opponent Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Those Iowa players, in the early innings, were intent on resting their bats on their shoulders and praying to God they weren’t going to get hit by those 90+ mph fastballs.

I’m not sure how it happened with Cornejo on the mound, but that Iowa team was able to get two runs in during those first seven innings and Wellington took the team into extra innings tied at 2. Babe Ruth Baseball only allows pitchers to throw seven innings in a 24-hour span so Metzen had to use a new pitcher.

Tom Janney and Mario Jauregui watched the tournament from a newly-built treehouse in 1995.

Wellington would go on to lose that game 7-2.

“I still can’t figure out how we lost that game,” Metzen said this week, as flummoxed as I was.

But that turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Wellington would then become the primetime team for the next four evenings playing loser bracket games around 6 and 8 p.m. The all-stars kept winning, and the crowds seemed to get more and more excited.

Wellington would eventually play itself into a tournament championship against the Minnetonka, Minn. team that was clearly the only team that could compete against our locals.

The game started at 1:30 p.m. on a hot Wednesday afternoon. That irritated Fairbanks and Carr to no end because they were hoping for a prime-time championship so most of the locals could come to watch. But the Midwest commissioner said the tournament needed to be over so the Minnesota team could get home at a decent time.

“What irritated me was by playing that afternoon we ended up playing four games in less than 24 hours,” Metzen said. “Here, Babe Ruth is supposed to be this upstanding organization that cares for the welfare of our children, and then they turned around and made us play four games in less than 24 hours. It was so hypocritical.”

Fatigue may have played a part in Wellington’s eventual demise, but moving the games to the afternoon sure did not diminish the crowd.

The place was not only packed, but the extra bleachers brought in was packed and overflowing. There were people on the outside fence. Again, I wrote, there were over 2,000 people in attendance. On that day, I probably was a lot closer to my estimate.

It was an incredible atmosphere and Cornejo retook the mound. He quickly disposed of the Minnetonka team 3-0 in game one. Then he stepped off the mound. Wellington, having come through the losers bracket, had one more game to play.

And what was at stake? A chance to play in the Midwest Regional Babe Ruth World Series that year in Milleville, N.J.

Nance was the second pitcher that day, and he pitched a brilliant game. And what was so aggravating about that game, that despite playing three games in less than 24 hours to get to this point, Wellington still appeared World Series bound. It had led 7-4 late into the game and was going into the top of the seventh ahead 7-5.

Then disaster struck when a Minnesota player hit an infield popup fly that landed right between catcher Crittenden and pitcher Nance, and that eventually led to two East Tonka runs to tie the game at 7-all.

In the extra frames, the two teams would go scoreless for two innings, before Minnesota went on a terror and scored eight runs off of seven hits in the top of the 10th. Wellington’s dream of a World Series berth was over.

Jeremy Struble rounds for home in a 3-0 victory over East Tonka, Minn. in the first championship game.

Looking back

For me, it was an impossible week to forget. My wife, 9 1/2 months pregnant with my oldest son Devin, was told by her doctor to stay out of the heat because of her high blood pressure. Devin was coming into this world in less than a week. She didn’t listen. She had to watch those ballgames. Doctors make the worst patients.

Her story was probably unlike many others that week. My guess is there were a lot of people calling in sick to work that day. Crops weren’t being tended. Airplane parts weren’t getting made that day in Wellington.

It was a moment of pure unadulterated joy permeating the community. I remember that morning of the championship doubleheader, I couldn’t make deadline at the newspaper office because people kept calling me asking questions. The only mistake the local Babe Ruth officials made was financial. In fear no one was going to show up, they allowed everyone to watch the game free. But the people were coming no matter if they were paying or not. I’m sure Babe Ruth could have charged $20 a ticket and still get the same sized crowd.

After it was all over, I remember the faces of that tired worn-out team, who played 31 innings in 24 hours. They were demoralized. I was demoralized it was all over. But the next week, they would hit the football field. High School practice would begin. Life went on.

That team stunningly never won a state championship in high school baseball. Cornejo was hurt his junior year, and the team lost in the regional finals his senior year. Cornejo would eventually rise to play for the Tigers, but he left the game early due to injuries.

One player, Ross, would go on to start  an inner-city baseball league in Kansas City. Undoubtedly, youth baseball in Wellington and that particular tournament had to have had some effect on him.

A new scoreboard finally replaced the old one in 2013 at Hibbs-Hooten Field, 18 years after that one made its debut at the 1995 Midwest Regional tournament.

Today, Sellers Park still reverberates from that tournament with its red shale infield and pristine condition of the field. The new scoreboard from that tournament was finally replaced in 2013 – serving the community 18 years of baseball.

Some of those players, now 40, stuck around and lived in Wellington. Others left. The boys now have children who are probably playing some type of baseball.

As for Babe Ruth baseball, sadly it seems to be fading into oblivion. The foster-care program in which visiting players stayed with host parents – unique to Babe Ruth baseball – ended a few years ago. Too many liabilities… of course. Just last year, the Wellington Rec announced it was going to join NBC baseball and sponsor its own league for recreational purposes.

A tournament such as the Midwest Regional may have been impossible to pull off today anyway. For one thing, Wellington had more local merchants to help with the finances. And few would argue, there was so much more community connections even 25 years ago. There were nine teams needing host families when they arrived for the 1995 Regional, and every player had a host. That had to have been more than 100 players. Could such a feat happen today? It seems doubtful.

Sliding J.R. Metzen, the son of Ronnie Metzen, the head coach of the team, is now a father of three.

“The great thing about those tournaments was it drew communities together and fostered cooperative relationships,” said Robert Willis, Commissioner of the Kansas Babe Ruth League. “Sad that the cohesiveness and cooperation within the community is not what it used to be.”

Twenty-five years ago, Wellington hosted itself a baseball tournament. And it is hard to imagine any party being so much fun since.

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