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ALACHUA ‒ The Babe Ruth Jamboree has returned to Alachua. The Babe Ruth League was established in 1951 to provide coaching and training for young athletes from 4 to 16 years of age in recreational baseball. The goal was to help them learn not only baseball but to build their understanding of working as a team and competing with other teams with the core values of honor, integrity, unity and sportsmanship.

Now over 70 years later, there are leagues throughout the United States with over one million players, divided by age groups and style into four groups. Cal Ripken Baseball is for ages 4-12, Babe Ruth Baseball covers ages 13-16 with other leagues for Babe Ruth Softball, and Buddy Ball. Each group has a regular season, post-season games with different leagues and then at the end of the season the best players are picked for All Star team competitions.

In Alachua, the Santa Fe Babe Ruth Baseball League was founded in 1986. The league ran roughly 30 teams in the spring season and slightly less in the fall. Typically, a team practices or plays games three days a week. In the spring, the league starts the season with a “Jamboree” ceremony.

But like many other traditions, the Pandemic negatively affected the annual event. In 2020 there were no games. In 2021, the opening Jamboree was cancelled due to social distancing restrictions.   Games were played since it was an outdoor setting where distance rules could be observed. Today, the Jamboree has returned in full swing with an opening event that allows parents and players to gather and kick off the season and a full schedule of spring games.

“Before 2020, we had about 300 players and 30 teams, but due to the canceled seasons, we are now at 16 teams and about 187 players for the 2022 season, but we expect it to grow back to previous figures in a year or two,” said League President Chris Swilley. “Beyond players, we have to rebuild our all-volunteer staff and the sponsors that host and fund each team.”

Swilley said that all home games are played on fields in Alachua or High Springs, but they also compete with other leagues throughout North Florida. “They are doing the same rebuilding as us, but Babe Ruth Baseball has returned,” said Swilley. “Volunteers are the lifeblood of our organization and the Board is incredibly grateful for all of the parents, coaches, scorekeepers, concession volunteers and field crews that put in countless hours making this league possible. ‘

The efforts of all those volunteers and sponsors were on full display March 12 when players, staff, vendors and families gathered at the Hal Brady Recreation Complex for the opening Jamboree ceremony. The weather had been bad, with heavy rains for two days, but the rain stopped and skies cleared during the indoor ceremony leaving clear skies for the day's full slate of baseball games.

City officials, staff and police chiefs from both Alachua and High Springs were on hand to show their support for the league and the opportunities it brings the youth of the two cities.

Former Alachua City Commissioner Ben Boukari, Jr., served as MC, introducing the dignitaries and each team. Local celebrity and recording artist Cliff Dorsey sang the National Anthem as Boy Scout Troop 69 from High Springs posted the colors. Swilley presented the “Hal Brady” awards for 2020 to 2022 to honorees who had shown the most dedication and support for the league, even during the troubled two years of the Pandemic.

The league mascot, “Homer,” dressed as a baseball, enthusiastically walked the sidelines working up the assembled families and players to show their excitement. Boukari, along with dignitaries, league leaders and Homer, formed a line, and each team walked down the line as each person slapped hands to the players congratulating them as they were introduced and filed past.

The final act of the Jamboree opening ceremony was the first pitch thrown to one of the players by Alachua Parks and Recreation Director Elliot Harris to signify the opening games of the season.

Outside the skies cleared as players and families enjoyed barbecue provided by Buttman BBQ of Lake City and sweets and deserts from Mamas Sweet Blessings they headed to the playing fields to bring back the season for the Santa Fe Babe Ruth League. It was time to “Play Ball!”

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