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Play Ball?

Travel tournaments are increasingly dominating

youth baseball. It provides great opportunities to

play a lot of games around the country. But is it

good for the kids themselves?

Youth baseball.

For more than a century, it was the summer

game, a sunshine outlet for American kids. Their

national pastime.

Whether it was neighborhood pickup games

in the park or a more organized trip through

one of the local Little League programs, it was

a fun leisure-time sport for teens and pre-teens

to look forward to once school was out. It was as

informal, unstructured and relaxed as their long

summer days were.

That is changing. And not everyone believes

the change is a good one.

But some do, too.

Competition, which runs through every channel

of our lives, leads to elite selection – the best

movies, biggest-selling songs, winning politicians,

highest batting averages, most popular kids.

So, it was inevitable that it would creep into

summer baseball, as well. Someone had to pitch;

someone had to start while someone else sat the

bench; someone had to play shortstop while

someone else was shunted off to right field. And,

ultimately, all-star teams were formed that traveled

around the town or to other towns playing other

all-star teams.

“Travel” became the key definer. It separated

the best of the best from the old come-one-comeall

afternoon game in the neighborhood park.

Today, the concept of travel baseball has

exploded, from traveling around the immediate

area to traveling around the country. There are

tournaments nearly every weekend, in which

teams might play six games in the space of three

days. That’s lots of baseball against high-level

competition. In a country where the feeling is

baseball is slipping as a youth activity – to football,

to basketball, to soccer, to video games – travel

ball juices up the interest level by the travel,

competition and opportunities it offers.

But Adam Kleinert wonders if it’s having exactly

the opposite effect. Kleinert, a graphic designer

who owns Hatch Design in Henryville, is the

father of two sons and two daughters; baseball

coordinator at the local youth park; and baseball

coach at Henryville Junior High School. He sees

travel baseball potentially diminishing interest in

youth baseball because it’s causing the summer

rec leagues to disappear.

“Because of the entry fees and travel demands,

travel ball has become something for the affluent

families and the single-child families,” said

Kleinert, who turned down travel ball for his

older son, Eli (now 13), partly because he felt it

wasn’t fair to his three other children. “A lot of

kids, left off of travel teams and with no other

opportunities to play organized baseball in the

summer, are turning to other sports.”

Kleinert said a friend pays around $10,000 for

his son’s travel ball activity. That includes the entry

fees, of course, but also the private lessons and

expensive equipment – because, said Kleinert,

parents insist on providing only the very best bats

and gloves for their sons. (He notes, wryly, that

in the Dominican Republic kids play the game

using hand-me-downs and makeshift equipment.)

And for what? For those who play, the immediate

prize for winning one of the tournaments is a

trophy.

The trophy is a nice prize, too, for those who

run the teams – mainly because it allows them

to recruit other good players, not unlike the way

Alabama brings the best high school football

players to Tuscaloosa. That recruiting is profitable

in travel baseball because of the money the

organizers make on the membership fees they

charge – as much as $1,500 to $2,000 per player’s

family. If they have several teams in a variety of

age groups, that loose change becomes a sizable

profit for them.

The prize for the kids (and perhaps even more

so for their parents) is a chance to perform in front

of the college coaches and professional scouts

who come out to the tournaments and sit in the

stands. That means scholarships, pro contracts

major league salaries, free-agent signing bonuses,

endorsements, shoe deals, glove deals, book deals.

Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels earns

more than $34 million a year – and that’s just his

salary. Little wonder parents want their kids to

impress the scouts and coaches.

One of those college coaches whose attention

is sought by travel players and their parents is

Larry Owens, baseball coach of the Bellarmine

University Knights. So, he must love the idea of

these tournaments, in which he’s able to see and

assess promising athletes from all over the country.

Not so much.

“Yes, it gives kids the opportunity to play a

lot of baseball and to travel around the country,

and that’s a good thing,” Owens said. “But here’s

my gripe. When these kids show up here (at

Bellarmine), we’re having to teach them things

we shouldn’t be having to teach: how to play the

game! It’s little things they should know by the

time they get here: cutoffs, relays, rundowns,

fundamentals that are not getting taught at the

youth level because they don’t have time to do it.”

Why not?

Because, Owens said, “the tournaments are

set up only to play games – as many as they can

pack into a three-or-four-day weekend. So, kids

just play games, they don’t practice, they don’t

learn, they don’t develop.”

Amazingly, he said, “When I was coaching in

the minor leagues (he was a pitching coach in

the Chicago White Sox organization), those kids

didn’t know the fine points of the game, either.”

And that’s just for the kids who get that far.

Many more have been left on the side of the

road because they were forced to pitch too many

innings in these tournaments, or to throw too

hard, and they blew out their arms.

“In too many cases, these coaches just want to

win, so they’ll pitch their best kid over and over,”

Owens said, “unless the tournament has limits

on how many innings a kid can pitch. And the kid

wants to open it up and throw hard because he

thinks that’s what the scouts in the stands want

to see. It’s too much for young arms.”

Nor is the problem just about preserving arms.

It’s also growing up and maturing off the diamond.

Ben Reel, the baseball coach at Indiana

University Southeast, would like to see youth

sports be more of a training ground for life,

“teaching you all the different facet sports can

teach – patience, discipline, commitment, hard

work, everyday habits.

“My objection to travel ball is its priorities,”

said the successful coach of IUS’s championship

program. “Travel baseball is built around playing

the game, not around learning the game. Kids

don’t want to practice, or prepare, or get coached.

“They just want to go hit in the cage and start

the game. It’s ‘The more games we play, the better

we’re gonna get – right?’ But the game itself should

only be the culmination of all that preparation.”

What disappoints Reel is that travel can be

positive in providing all the opportunities to

play and develop. “With travel ball, kids just get

the chance to play more – maybe as much as 150

games a year.”

But they don’t practice. “Practice is more than

just taking three rounds in the cage before the

game, or a half-hour of infield,” said Reel. “Practice

is understanding baseball and how it works.

Baseball is a thinking man’s sport – strategies,

nuances, situational approaches. On every pitch,

there are so many things happening, so many

different ways to handle whatever happens next.

And so many rules kids have to be aware of.”

In travel ball, he said, “it’s ‘told’ versus ‘taught.’

I often find myself spending a lot of time teaching

my players the rules. And they’re in college! The

game’s a lot more than having a good swing.”

It’s a theme that resonates throughout the

coaching fraternity, at all levels. Ricky Romans,

coach at Charlestown High School, agreed that

“travel baseball had to be more about learning,

instruction and teaching.

“Kids get so wrapped up about going out to

play in tournaments, and win tournaments,” he

said, “that they’re missing the ultimate objective:

how to play the game.”

Romans said he can see one benefit of travel

ball: playing against better competition. “But

when the parents see it as a better opportunity

to put their sons on this specific team, with its

specific reputation, to improve the chance of a

college scholarship, that’s where I get frustrated.”

He reasserts the complaint that the kids don’t

get proper preparation. “They can go to all these

batting instructors and pitching gurus, but when

they get on the field, do they know how to play

the game? Do they know what to do when the

ball’s put in play?

“It’s frustrating when a kid gets to us and he

doesn’t even know how to hold a ball!”

So, will it change? Or is travel ball slowly

eliminating the summertime Little League

programs, American Legion ball and pickup

games among friends?

Adam Kleinert offers a refreshing possibility.

Because participation in travel ball often seems

to be something the parents want rather than the

players, Kleinert wonders whether that’s a cyclical

thing that will take a 180-degree turn in the future.

“Today’s kids give up their summers for travel

ball, at least partly because their fathers are

pushing them,” he said. “So, I wonder if these

kids, when they grow up and become fathers,

will say, on behalf of their sons, ‘Let him relax

and do what he chooses. Let him go to the park

and play ball with his friends if he wants. It’s

summertime!’ ”


“ it’s ‘told’ versus

‘taught.’ I often find

myself spending

a lot of time teaching

my players the rules.

And they’re in college!

The game’s a lot more

than having a

good swing.”

BEN REEL

HEAD Baseball coach

Indiana University Southeast

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