A bat and ball balancing act

Local youth baseball organization says traveling and house leagues can co-exist

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By BRAD SPENCER

It's no secret traveling youth baseball leagues are the craze. These, at times, cut-throat and competitive leagues have even resulted to recruiting players from out of town. While the leagues have become common place around the country, and despite the popularity, controversy over their value to young athletes continues. When kids aren't selected to participate in the more competitive playing environment, parents tend to think a conspiracy has transpired.

Oak Park Youth Baseball/Softball (OPYB/S) has implemented a unique program to counter the "elite" traveling leagues while maintaining a balance of the new and traditional forms of youth ball. It too has had its detractors, but for the most part the program has been a success.

The following is a list of pertinent questions we recently posed to Tom Brashler, vice president and director of baseball at OPYB/S, via e-mail and over the phone.

Why did OPYB/S decide to implement its own travel league?

Perceiving the emergence of travel team programs as a threat to our program, we set out to organize a baseball travel team program that would operate under the auspices of OPYB/S as an adjunct to our primary house league system, yet offer an attractive travel team alternative. The foundation of that approach is the "Exclusive Play Policy" adopted by the Board in 2003, which prohibits anyone from playing on our house league or tournament teams if they are on a roster of a team not sponsored by OPYB/S. The Board of Directors then formed a Travel/Tournament Team Committee to adopt a mission statement for expanded travel baseball activities while preserving the primacy of the house-league program. That initiative produced the Oak Park Eagles, the official travel baseball teams of Oak Park Youth Baseball/Softball that are now participating very successfully in tournaments throughout Illinois and in other states.

How many traveling teams does the OPYB/S currently have, and how many OPYB/S players participate in travel league teams throughout the year?

The Oak Park Eagles boys travel program sponsors two teams at each of the 9, 10, 11 and 12 year olds levels, and four teams at the 8 year olds level. There are 25-35 players at each of the 9-12 year olds levels, and over 60 players at the 8 year olds level, for a total of approximately 200 players who participate in the Eagles program. The number of players involved can vary year-to-year based on skill levels and player interest. The Eagles teams hold winter workouts in the OPRF High School gym from Nov. through March, and begin games in April. They play through the summer, usually on weekends, in the Northern Illinois Metro League and at invitational tournaments. At least one team at each age level also competes in the official PONY Baseball tournament.

OPYB/S also supports non-Eagles tournament teams where interest is expressed by coaches, parents and players. The numbers here are also based on interest level, coach availability, etc. This year we have authorized up to six tournament teams that will be made up of players who are not in the Eagles program but want to play in post-season tournaments. These teams are organized on a tryout basis, and will play in invitational tournaments through the summer.

Both the Oak Park Eagles players and the non-Eagles tournament players participate fully in their house league teams, playing a full season that culminates in the Village Playoffs and Championship Series and the All-Star Games. All Eagles players are expected to attend all house-league practices and games, and are not excused for Eagles games. Although occasional scheduling accommodations are made, in general the house-league schedules are not disrupted by travel/tournament play and all house leagues continue to play full regular seasons and playoff/championship series.

How are players picked for travel teams? Is it a signup or tryout? If there is a tryout, is the event announced and open to the public or is it private?

At registration, parents are asked to express their child's interest in being considered for travel/tournament baseball. This is not their only chance to step forward. There are separate communications that go out to players and their families about travel ball. Coaches who are recommended by the league presidents of OPYB/S and approved by the TTC select the travel teams from players in the Junior Bronco or Bronco house leagues. (The Junior Bronco and Bronco leagues draft their players following mandatory tryouts that are announced at registration and conducted in Marchâ€"they are not public, although parents are free to observe.) The winter workouts for Eagles teams begin in the Fall and continue through the Spring up to the start of the season. Players who were on the tournament team the prior year are invited to the workouts, and players may also participate if they are recommended by their house-league coach or invited by the tournament team coach.

Generally, selection for an Eagles team is based on a variety of factors, including a player's performance at the workouts, during the regular house league season, and over the course of time in the eyes of the coaches. OPYB/S makes every effort to inform parents and players about tournament/travel team opportunities, although being selected for a travel team is not guaranteed to any player. The 8 year old Eagles teams are selected based on performance during the regular season and tryouts of players recommended by their house-league coaches. The non-Eagles tournament teams are selected near the end of the regular season, usually by tryouts administered by the coaches who have volunteered to organize those teams.

There's been mention that travel team players are hand-selected by coaches; is that true? If so, what factors are taken into account when deciding on a player?

I'm not sure what "hand-selected" means, but selection for a travel/tournament team in OPYB/S is not by any means an exclusive or closed process. Factors taken into consideration include a player's skill level, attitude, commitment to the organization and the team, and desire to play a competitive level of baseball.

But neither are players "pre-selected," if that's what you're getting at. There is no question that most travel/tournament team coaches are familiar with the players and their relative skills, since they are almost always coaches of house-league teams who see the kids play on a regular basis. Coaches rightfully talk among themselves and rely on each other for insights into players' skills. I can absolutely assure you, however, that the skill and attitude of a player in the eyes of the coach are and always will be the most important factors in the selection of a roster. Simply put, the travel/tournament team coaches want to win, and they won't compromise that objective by playing favorites in selecting their players. Skepticsâ€"often the parents of players who aren't selected for a travel teamâ€"will almost always believe that "the fix was in" and the coaches played favorites. There's nothing that will convince them otherwise or settle that debate except to say that an organization that relies on volunteer coaches has to allow them a great deal of latitude to select the players they think are most likely to win, and if that means taking a little kid who can reliably lay down a bunt over a big one who occasionally hits a home run, then so be it.

How focused is the board at the OPYB/S on developing more travel-league teams?

The Eagles TTC, through the Board, is very interested in responding to the level of interest coming from the participants of OPYB/S. We are pleased with the system we have in place, although we meet regularly to examine how it's working and to implement improvements if we can. I think the number of teams we now sponsor is appropriate for the skill level of our players and the level of tournament play available to us.

What percentage of the OPYB/S funding goes to the travel-league teams, as opposed to the non-traveling league teams.

With the exception of a nominal contribution from OPYB/S, all of the Eagles and non-Eagles travel/tournament teams are funded entirely by the Eagles players and their families through fees and fundraising. OPYB/S has traditionally paid for the tournament entrance fees of its post-season teams, and feels that participation in tournaments is an important part of the organization's purposes. As such, OPYB/S provides nominal financial support to the Eagles and the non-Eagles tournament teams, which I believe for this year represents less than 3 percent of our annual budget.

How can kids benefit from participating in both the non-travel leagues and the travel leagues?

Like them or not, travel teams have made substantial inroads into youth baseball, particularly at the higher levels of competition, and pose a serious threat to the traditional Little League and PONY programs that desire to retain their most talented players. OPYB/S has historically offered both recreational and competitive leagues that are separated based on skill level, and has always prided itself as a feeder program for our successful high school baseball programs. Having the luxury of being a large organization with hundreds of players, OPYB/S is able to offer house-league programs at recreational and competitive levels so that players can be grouped with those of similar skills. Traditionally the competitive leagues (Junior Bronco at ages 9-10 and Bronco at ages 11-12) have organized tournament teams after the regular season and have competed in the official PONY tournaments. A number of those teams have performed very well over the years, appearing as recently as 2002 in the Bronco World Series in Calif., and have helped to establish Oak Park's reputation as one of the best baseball communities in the Chicago area.

All Eagles players participate fully on their house-league teams, there has been no reduction in the number of house-league games, and with few exceptions the house league schedules are not altered to accommodate Eagles games. The Eagles players choose our travel program because they can still play in the house-league games with their friends, ride their bikes to the game, hang out at the park to watch the other games, see their friends and families in the stands, and do all the wonderful things associated with community baseball leagues. OPYB/S benefits from keeping those players in our program and not losing them to elite teams based in Palatine, Lombard or other towns. Truly, the best of both worlds.

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