Skip to comments.Travel teams are eroding community baseball: Washington Post opinion
Posted on 06/01/2014 10:50:23 PM PDT by FlJoePa
By David Mendell
The shortstop ranged nimbly to his right, scooped up a sharp grounder and unleashed a strong throw to first base. Seeing the athletic play by my son, a burly fellow leaned against the chain-link fence.
"You've got a nice little ballplayer there," the man, Mike Adams, told me. "You should think about getting him into a full-time travel program. The sooner, the better."
I was a neophyte in the byzantine world of youth baseball, and Adams' husky voice carried the resonance of a father who had logged many hours behind caged dugouts. Yet I had to chuckle. "Mike," I said, "Nate's just 9. Full-time travel baseball, really?"
In the past three years, as an assistant coach with the youth baseball organization in Oak Park, Ill., and as manager of one of its part-time travel teams, I've watched more than a dozen kids my son's age follow the route suggested by Adams. Lured by a chance to compete at a more elite level, they've left local baseball for various full-time travel teams in Chicago's suburbs. Full-time travel baseball means many more practices and many more games many of them far away. To rise in rankings and win tournaments, some teams, especially in warm climates, play nearly year-round, competing in as many as 120 games per year, more than most minor league players.
Travel ball is not new it's been around for a couple of decades. But participation in full-time travel baseball has exploded in recent years. For example, in 2000, Atlanta's first All-American Wood Bat Classic tournament opened with about a dozen teams. This Memorial Day weekend, nearly 100 squads from half a dozen states will descend on fields throughout metropolitan Atlanta to participate. The players range in age from 8 to 14. Rebecca Davis, executive director of the Atlanta-based Youth Amateur Travel Sports Association, estimates that there are tens of thousands of travel teams in Georgia and Florida alone.
"The fast growth absolutely blindsided us," she conceded. "Those days of rec ball and local Little League, or just going to the park and playing ball those days are nonexistent. They're gone. Now, it's all about travel."
That's an overstatement. Yes, Little League enrollment has declined 20 percent since its peak in 1997, from 3 million to 2.4 million. But 2.4 million players hardly suggests that community leagues are disappearing. And many young travel team players also play on their local teams.
Still, it's true that the playing field for youth baseball has changed dramatically since Little League was founded 75 years ago. And with the loss of so many players and their families to travel teams, our community league games have lost a certain sense of community.
Carl Stotz started Little League as a program that would teach sportsmanship and teamwork to preteen boys in his home town, Williamsport, Pa. The first game was played on June 6, 1939, when Lundy Lumber defeated Lycoming Dairy. The local business sponsorships helped keep participation costs low and root the teams in their communities. To this day, defined areas from which each local league can draw prevent teams from poaching good players from one another.
Travel ball, by contrast, is not cheap participation fees average about $2,000 per player per year. And teams may invite players from anywhere in the region. Since tournaments and games are usually in other towns, players and their parents must spend many hours commuting.
Some travel ballplayers resemble professional athletes: Year by year, they go from one travel team to another, switching teammates and uniforms, with the name splashed across the front of the jersey usually signifying something other than their home town.
"Where's the local pride gone?" asked Tim Dennehy, pitching coach for Oak Park-River Forest High School's varsity team. "By the time my teammates and I got to high school, we were like family. We were already a team, picking each other up, playing for our community. Now, guys arrive from a bunch of different teams, and they know guys in the other dugout better than they know each other."
There have been concerns about the competitiveness fostered by youth baseball since Little League was in its infancy. As far back as 1957, Sports Illustrated wrote: "The two basic arguments which strike at the roots of Little League pop up year after year: it puts too much competitive pressure on the children; it brings out the monster in too many parents and adult leaders."
That description reminds me of my part-time travel team's first tournament victory in July 2012. The pugnacious coaching dad of the opposing team was so angered by an intentional walk I called, in hopes of setting up a double play, that he refused his second-place trophies and verbally threatened one of my assistant coaches. (I'll admit that it was probably poor form to intentionally walk a 10-year-old.)
But full-time travel teams encourage pressure, and negative character traits, of a higher order.
Dennehy, who pitched in the Yankees system, worries that they are breeding a more selfish mind-set, with some players far more concerned about their individual statistics than team performance. Their teams, after all, are ever changing.
And, of course, the whole system is based on the idea that travel teams offer elite athletes more professional coaching and more competitive play. While the expansion of travel ball may have diluted the level of competition somewhat, it's indisputable that travel players, who log so many more hours at the ballfield, tend to pick up both fundamentals and sophisticated skills at earlier ages. They're graduating from youth play to high school throwing pitches at a higher velocity than ever, and fielding and hitting with more proficiency than in eras past.
But Stephen Keener, president and chief executive of Little League International, questions whether travel ball is the key to something more. "There's this belief that a travel team and a higher level of competitive play will propel a child to a higher place. That belief is misguided," he told me. "There is something to be said for high-quality instruction, but at the end of the day, the player and his personal desire and his athletic ability will determine how far he goes in baseball."
As a parent, though, it's hard to resist the implications of the travel-team websites listing alumni who have gone on to college and pro teams. Who wouldn't want to give their child the best chance at success?
But there are physical and emotional costs.
Major League Baseball officials are looking at why higher numbers of budding pitching stars, such as Stephen Strasburg and Jose Fernandez, have suffered severe arm injuries in their early 20s. To a youth-coaching dad like myself, the answer is plain: overuse at young ages.
"I'm doing more and more operations on younger and younger arms every year," said Timothy Kremchek, head physician for the Cincinnati Reds, who specializes in Tommy John arm surgeries. "These kids are being overused and abused. They are playing on too many different teams and throwing too many breaking pitches. It's something we know about, but the abuse goes on. The parents are chasing some sort of dream. It makes me sick."
Kremchek has been instrumental in instituting pitch limits and banning breaking pitches in youth baseball in Ohio. And teams affiliated with Little League Baseball have implemented pitch limits nationwide, which is a start. Still, as Keener notes, many Little League participants also play on travel teams outside their local leagues, while others are on full-time teams, making it impossible for governing bodies to police how much baseball a kid is playing each year.
Travel ball also amplifies the risk of mental burnout.
"For too many kids, the genesis of a kid's passion for playing baseball is being lost in the full-time travel movement," laments Jim Donovan, a Chicago area baseball instructor and former University of Illinois second baseman. "It really troubles me when parents and coaches intervene in the process to the extent that kids just aren't enjoying the game anymore. And believe me, I see this all the time kids who grab their gear bags, and the bags look so heavy on their shoulders, you know? And the kid's face, it just looks blank.
"The games have become so serious, and so many kids aren't enjoying it. It just breaks my heart when I see a kid reacting like that to the game that I love so much and have put so much faith in."
My son is now 12 and, although we've toyed with the idea of full-time travel ball, he has stuck with our local league (which is community-based but not affiliated with Little League) and part-time travel, progressing nicely as a shortstop and pitcher. Primarily, he wanted to keep playing with his friends. He was also deterred by the intense schedule of practices and games. "The travel kids are always talking about how much they practice, like every day, even in the winter," Nathan told me. "If I went to a travel team, I think my pitching arm would fall off."
I'm glad he's stayed, because I think the most significant missing element in professionally coached travel ball is the father-son experience. No other American sport seems to bond fathers and sons as securely as baseball. There's something about the pacing of the game, the long season, the buildup to dramatic late-inning heroics on steamy summer days and nights.
Take the trophy ceremony on one of those hot nights in 2012. As I was passing out the first-place hardware to my players, lined up down the first base line, my son's turn arrived. I had fist-bumped each player before him. But when Nate jogged up to me, I seized him in a bear hug. A lump formed in my throat that surely was visible from the parking lot.
All the work that we had logged in the batting cages and on the practice fields rushed through my head, as did the sacrifices to my career and aging body. As a tear rolled down my cheek, Nathan looked up at me and said: "Dad, you gotta let go now. Everybody's watching us." I could have held my 10-year-old boy in that hug forever. No amount of paid coaching could buy that moment.
Personally, I don't have much time for the Cal Ripkens of the world that profit on the backs of easily sold parents while shunning Little League. Little League isn't perfect, but travel baseball is like a smaller, whiter AAU basketball in some ways.
I understand the need for travel teams (we don't even have Little League where I live), but I wish it wouldn't start until age 13 so that kids could (have to) play with their neighbors and classmates in Little League. That's how you make friends and teammates.
Friday will mark the 75th anniversary of the first ever Little League game in Williamsport. Carl Stotz just wanted to help some kids. He was at odds with LLB for years over their commercialization, but made amends before his death.
What he would think of travel ball, no one really knows. I would think that he would say someone took their eye off the ball at some point.
I couldn’t say who started it...but I’m guessing they eventually fed off each other... Seems like everyone I know with kids between 12-18 that play softball or baseball or does band or cheerleading is “going to nationals.”
Just how many national tournaments are there? Is this part of the everyone-gets-a-medal mentality or crass money making? Both I think.
I’m sure the organizers would maintain that the LL World Series shouldn’t have a monopoly on deciding who is the best etc etc...but how long until resumes and college applications hit the round file as soon as the phrase “went to nationals” shows up. I think we’re well on our way to that already. Like that Twilight Zone episode where the gold thieves put themselves to sleep for a hundred years and wake up in a world where gold is practically worthless
It just doesn't seem right that I live in a place where kids can't dream about this:
What crappy parents. What kid wouldn’t want to stay and play with their friends? Instead a greedy parent pushes the road and no ties lifestyle on a child. Pathetic.
This makes me think of the South Park episode where all the little league teams were trying to lose on purpose so that they didn’t have to play any more.
My kids are all under six so I don’t have this problem yet, but I do want them involved in something. My beef is the mandatory crap that they now have with youth sports. I know people that don’t go on vacation because of mandatory practices or games. And family dinner every evening? Try dad takes a kid to volleyball and they get Wendy’s while mom tales the other two to soccer and they get McDonald’s.
That is exactly the way it happens. And it starts at about age 7 now too. The typical conversation you hear among parents at a kid's game is about how they are going to get all their various kids to all their games that weekend.
Oh, and "playdates" aka, spending a weekend afternoon at a friend's house just having fun. Almost non-existent. Can't find anyone available. Everyone has a game or is traveling. You have children playing games half way across the country. Really?
Youth sports has become completely toxic.
Really? A child can't make friends with the other children on a travel team? Odd.
What I find disheartening is the majority of kids who play travel ball are “forced” to by their daddy who dreamed of playing baseball but failed. They want to live vicariously through their child. They push their kids like sled dogs.
The greedy parent does all this so he can wear the gear of the travel team around town and brag how his kid plays “elite” sports. I see it all the time. The dad is always a Walter Mitty type who never played ball himself.
This year marks the first time since 2010 neither of my 2 boys is playing baseball. Oldest one is in the Autism spectrum, and our town has no way for him to play without actually competing (he can’t handle the concept of winning and losing.)
My other son, our middle child, is more into hockey anyway...and last year, for his age group (7-8 yr olds), ensured his kid’s team had all the “best” players (of course), to make sure his kid would be in the league champion team.
This year, all the kids from that team are in the “travel” team. So, this year, my middle dude is exclusively in hockey (which, as they start full-ice this year, is going to entail enough travel already.)
I am not a parent and don’t know anything about autism, but I do know most Little Leagues have a Challenger division. That may be something worth looking into.
My son has played travel baseball for the last 5 or 6 years. We've played in tournaments at the Ripken sites in both Maryland and SC. They are EXTREMELY well run and have always been an extremely positive experience for all the boys (and, no, we've never come close to actually winning one of the tournaments).
Clearly, nether you nor the (no doubt) lib writer of this piece have a clue. You're both taking the most extreme negative stereotypes and applying them universally. In short, you both have no idea what you're talking about - and its hilarious. Hilariously sad, but still hilarious.
I'm laughing at you right now.
When we were in SoCal, our local league did have a Challenge team...my son played.
Then we moved to Wisconsin, and nada. Just as well, he’s developing into a singer instead.
The league here is full of lunatic parents living through their five year olds. You should see a tball game! It is the craziest thing I have seen in youth sports. They have All Stars for tball. They pay $200 to be on the all star team. The parents then have to pay gate entry fees at every park during tournaments. To watch tball. The fees are set by Cal Ripkin organization at $6 per person over 10. So for a family with just two adults attending a three day tball tournament , that is $36. Typically, they will play in five tournaments during the summer. They have to travel to most tournaments and pay for hotels and food. They practice at least four times a week. TBALL!!!
And I thought we were crazy when we started travel ball with a ten year old! (That was eight years ago. Two of the players from our team back then have scholarships to play at DivI schools. I think everyone else from that team burned out, injured themselves, or lost interest.)
A big problem I see in youth sports is that Sunday is not respected as a day for church attendance. We have certainly been guilty of skipping church in favor of baseball games. It was wrong.
I guess you missed the whole, change uniform from year go year thing. No way any real friendship can be built like that
My nephew is an a excellent ballplayer. (Just got a full ride scholarship to the college of his choice to play ball). He plays first base and pitches.
He’s played travel ball since he was about 8. Lots and lots of practices and games and weekend tournaments.
He fortunately still enjoys the game but I believe he has lost out on much of his childhood. For example, his dad wouldn’t let him climb trees for fear he’d hurt his throwing arm.
But the biggest loss is his relationship with his non-immediate family. Everything in his life revolves around baseball, so much so that he is almost a stranger to his grandparents and cousins (and to me).
What are our children going to be like as adults when we teach them that the game is more important than anything else in their lives? If family doesn’t count? If their relationship with the Lord is less important than their ERA?
My nephew (so far) appears to still have a level head on his shoulders but I’ve already seen some of his team mates descend into the spoiled prima donna mind set. These kids believe that they are the sole reason for existence and several of them have already been in trouble with drugs and the law.
Travel ball is OK, BUT it must be kept in perspective and very few it seems manage to keep the correct perspective.
Nothing wrong with kids playing sports, but it shouldn’t consume their lives, lest they wind up like Todd Marinovich, unable to handle the real world.
little league ends at 12 this starts at 13.
“I guess you missed the whole, change uniform from year go year thing. No way any real friendship can be built like that.”
Do you actually have any experience with children on a travel team? Do you think that every year the roster is completely new and parents don’t make an effort to keep their children on the same teams?
It really sounds as though you read the article and taking every negative thing as the only truth.
the author’s kid will likely be a fine D2 or D3 player, and there is absolutely no shame in a kid wanting to do as the author states.
Some kids want more.
My daughter receieved a full ride to an out of state D1 school in lacrosse. With her injury red shirt season, the school in question paid for 5 years, she walked away with her Masters degree in addition to her undergrad. And a semester abroad.
Kind of puts the 2K a year for 5 or 6 years in a different perspective.
I’d be willing to wager that Penn State’s baseball team is almost entirely populated with travel league players. That’s how the kids get exposure to the college coaches, by playing those big tournies.
And I’d love to know what the gratuitous shot at Cal Ripken was all about.
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