Stealing home

How travel teams are eroding community baseball

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By David Mendell

Contributing Reporter

David Mendell, a freelance writer and former reporter for the Chicago Tribune, coaches Oak Park Youth Baseball outside Chicago.
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's 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 and 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."
Myths of 2014
Fact or fiction? A collection from Outlook's popular Five Myths series.
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 Web sites 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 left 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.

This story, which originally was published in the Sunday Outlook section of the Washington Post, has been reprinted with the author's permission.

Reader Comments

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LI, NY from Lomg Island  

Posted: November 11th, 2014 7:56 AM

Our son plays both little league in our hometown and travel ball. He plays little league with his friends and travel for a better level of competition. As for the father/son experience of little league, my husband has put his name in to coach a little league team for the past four years. Each year he has been told, no thanks, we have enough guys. It's the same clique of guys whose sons are on the summer allstar team, and that's why folks have turned to travel from our town.


Posted: August 1st, 2014 6:11 PM

The word on the street is quite a few 11/12 year olds are leaving for Top tier and other programs next year. OPYBS has mis-managed itself out of a great league/program thru its own ego/hubris.

Dreamer from Oak Park  

Posted: August 1st, 2014 5:53 PM

Agree with many earlier comments. 1.Bronco plays 20/22 games.Kids that love baseball,move to travel because they play more games,simple as that.My son loved hockey and travel offered 50/60 games a year vs.20 house.Never any illusions he would play in college or beyond;he just wanted more games. 2.Bronco &pony in OP used to be NON-parent coaching.When parents started getting involved,kids started leaving.The last OP Bronco team to go to the World Series in Ca.was non-parent coaches.

Stan Johnstone from Oak Park  

Posted: July 1st, 2014 3:12 PM

Definitely agree that Edge soccer is a rip-off in terms of price/value but the coaches are better than at the high school and most of the best players just play club soccer and skip the high school team. Not saying any of them will be professional but some will play college i think. Better to keep kids focused on a sport rather than being a burden on society and training for the next generation of Link Cards


Posted: July 1st, 2014 3:10 PM

As someone who has a son who played full time, there are coaches/teams that are overly competitive. But is this any worse than coaches who follow their own agenda in house? Is one more damaging than another? My son played in house and watched the coaches friend son play 1st regardless of errors. My son play one inning infield all year as second year player. So get offf the soap box about how great in house is - if it were a great product people would stay - period.


Posted: July 1st, 2014 3:03 PM

Also want to object to the author's contention that travel ball "encourages negative character traits of a higher order." Passing judgment on other parents' decisions is a negative character trait. Joining a travel team taught our son that when he is treated unfairly, he can vote with his feet and go elsewhere in search of a better opportunity to pursue his passion.


Posted: July 1st, 2014 1:27 PM

Also, most people don't know that Shetland played 14 games and had one day to practice while Bronco played 19/20 games and had three days a week to practice. Both parents paid the same amount - TOTALLY BOGUS - check quickscores to confirm - there are Many things that go on that most people are not aware - So article does not reflect miscues/mismamangement that occurs as well


Posted: July 1st, 2014 1:08 PM

While article is focused on travel the context of OP cannot be lost. OP Board members coach most of major teams (non in minors - ie mustang) and all their buddies make eagles. OP baseball is more about the ego of the board than the best interest of the children. To have talented players not make Bronco cause dad is not liked /known is wrong. We had a player in Shetland who was outstanding - tried out for Bronco and dad said he did not know anyone. OPYBS must refocus on the right values


Posted: July 1st, 2014 11:55 AM

I'd like to correct another misperception about full-time travel baseball, and that is the cost. Team sponsorships and fundraisers have kept our cost down to just a few hundred dollars a season. We did travel out of state last year for a tournament, and that was an added cost. We budgeted for it like a vacation. Don't know for sure but I think soccer and hockey clubs are much more expensive. I know the Edge is expensive, because they publish the price on their web site.

OPRF Achievement  

Posted: July 1st, 2014 10:34 AM

Of course, all have good comments to offer. However, there is no ONE reason why people go to travel. As article points out, travel has always been around and some have the money. However, ONE reason all can share as an advantage for Travel Ball, having an Unbiased Coach. So many house teams could be GREAT, is Dad HEAD coach not allowed 5th grade and beyond.

Can only speak from personal experience  

Posted: July 1st, 2014 10:18 AM

Been through OPYBS and FT travel in lieu of PONY. Had a great experience in travel. More games, better competition and no "Daddy Ball." Played actual Elite teams (w/Elite players) and good AAA/AA/A teams instead of playing B/C teams like in Eagles. My thought is that OPYBS' hubris will consume it, as has occurred in other communities, unless it makes fundamental changes (better coaching & umps, FT travel teams, bring back non-dad coaches at Bronco, no Board members coaching, field space).


Posted: July 1st, 2014 8:22 AM

One of the biggest scams is the Edge. True, it's soccer, but same principle applies. Overcharge parents to put their "special" kids on travel teams so the parents can brag that their kid plays travel soccer. Newsflash parents: your kid isn't going to play professional ball, your kid isn't going to play college ball, and it's statistically unlikely that your kid will play high school ball. Put them in golf or tennis lessons so they can learn a lifelong sport.

Ben Thare  

Posted: July 1st, 2014 5:48 AM

@Observer - agree that some false elite teams exist. My point is that the author proclaims the evil of travel when in fact "daddy ball" can be much worse. It's no fun for kids to sit on the bench and watch the coach(s)' kids play in front of them. In travel at least the kid gets a fair shot at playing, false team or not.

just an observer from OP  

Posted: June 30th, 2014 11:15 PM

Ben Thare....The elite travel experience that you talk about is a myth. So many kids are playing in the watered down (very expensive) travel world that its lost its credability. How many kids play on a travel team and bat 3rd in the line up and can't even crack the starting line up for the varsity team in their hometown. If you have the money to pay, you can find a travel team to play on even if your skill is average at best.

Ben Thare  

Posted: June 30th, 2014 12:11 PM

I read too fast and didn't notice at first read. Of course the author like his program, he's the coach and his kid is the pitcher and shortstop.

Ben Thare  

Posted: June 30th, 2014 12:02 PM

Advocating for a higher level of play is not a crime anymore than advanced math is a crime. No one ever says "gee, your kid won't be the next Einstein so just take the easy math classes and have fun" In addition, my son NEVER played on a team where the coach's kid didn't play pitcher and/or shortstop (even tee ball). It's not a coincidence as this happens all over the country. (daddy will say it's cuz his kid is best). High level travel ball provides an equal playing ground.


Posted: June 30th, 2014 10:54 AM

The article does not address a few of the reasons parents leave. Unfortunately, baseball has beocme so political with "daddy ball" /equity that many parents leave as there are fed up with all of coaches kids/friends playing short/pitching. The other factor is lack of travel options to B league players. Finally, baseball lacks diversity (such as soccer) and with US browning (50% black, hsipanic, asian in 7 years) baseball faces a demographic problem that will result in further decline.

Sad from Oak Park  

Posted: June 29th, 2014 5:31 PM

I wish our story could have turned out like the author's. We wanted to stay in the Oak Park baseball system. But we had to leave, just so our son could get playing time. On a Bronco team, our boy sat on the bench and wasn't allowed to pitch. Now on a travel team, he pitches and all players spend equal time sitting. It is fair, and he is getting a chance to develop, which he wasn't afforded in OPYBS. If OP wants to keep players in town, I suggest creating rules to encourage fair play for everyone


Posted: June 29th, 2014 2:37 PM

Very nice article. I for one am thankful that many of the parents who are certain that their child is the next Ripken have moved their kids to travel leagues. The resulting environment is much better for allowing kids to play the game of baseball and still have fun. The truly unfortunate thing is that the parents who deprive their kids the opportunity to just have fun with the friends fail to realize that, based upon the simple numbers, the majority of their kids wont even make their HS squads.


Posted: June 27th, 2014 4:59 PM

Sports are subculture of life and our kids face a hyper competitive world. For example, try to get into any private school in the city.

Mom of an above average player from Oak Park  

Posted: June 27th, 2014 12:07 AM

My kid plays a lot of different sports. He's young, and he's competitive, so he's frustrated that he's not as good as the kids who started Edge soccer at 6, went to specialized swim camps at 7, or play year round baseball at 8. I tell him don't worry, you are getting better, just keep working hard and most important HAVE FUN. Be a kid! Decide your major later. Thanks for this timely and well thought out article.

Mom of An Average Player from Oak Park, IL  

Posted: June 26th, 2014 5:32 PM

I am glad to see David Mendell's piece appear in the on-line edition of the WJ. THANK YOU for putting into words what I've been saying about the death of many community activities (baseball, soccer, theatre, academics, and on and on) because of specialization, parent dreams & the need to keep kids entertained 24/7. It is a shame for children, families & communities on so many levels. Your child is probably not going to make a professional career out of (Insert your obsession here).

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