Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Best way to Travel Ball?

It's time to face it.  For me, it's difficult.  I'm a traditionalist and I do not like change, but youth baseball has changed.  It has morphed into something hard to recognize.  It feels like it's an all or nothing proposition.  I have set out to find a balance in this change, and believe I have.  Some of the change has been for good and some of it for evil.  I jest about the evil, but there is an element that is a terrible thing to see.  I'll get to that in a bit, but first, the change.

Gone are the days where a kid can show up to a recreational league, go through a tryout with no politics, get drafted by a coach who genuinely knows what he's talking about, play 15-20 games of baseball during the spring and summer and be considered the typical youth baseball player.  The typical youth baseball player today starts in T-ball at age 4 or 5 (sometimes even 3).  By age 7 he's playing close to 100 games per year through his travel ball team, rec ball team and all star team.  I met an eight year old last year who played in two rec leagues so he (or his parents) could choose which all star team to play for.  He was over 150 games on his way to close to 200.  That is not typical, but you get the point.  More kids are playing closer to 100 games per year than 20.  A lot of these kids are practicing 2-3 times per week.  These kids are doing this 9-10 months per year.  That's a lot of baseball!

As the parent of two boys who are coming into youth baseball and the uncle to three who leaving the ages of youth baseball, I've taken a big interest in this new normal.  I've really tried to have an open mind.  Some men I respect as parents and people are some of the best travel coaches in our area.  I see the good.  The kids that play so much baseball are so far ahead of where we were as kids.  They hit the cutoff man at age 7.  They routinely turn double plays by age 9.  These kids play a more real brand of baseball than I ever dreamed of playing at their age.  The kids love it.  I love seeing a group of friends together at a restaurant eating pizza in their uniforms laughing about the previous game.  (even though they all have flat billed hats on, thanks Kris Medlen for adding to that trend!)  There are a lot of good things coming out of travel ball.

There are of course some negatives.  First, kids are getting hurt.  If common sense didn't tell you that more is not always best, there is now scientific proof that physically a kid's body is not meant to do baseball activities as often or for as long as we are asking them to play.  The "Pitch Smart" initiative put forth by Major League Baseball is amazing.  (http://m.mlb.com/pitchsmart)  We are also keeping our kids from developing as athletes.  "The Sports Gene" by David Epstein is a fascinating read.  It does a great job of detailing why sports specialization especially before the ages of 14 or 15 actually can hurt an athletes ability of playing at the highest level in their sport.  It has decades of data to back up its claims.

If health and athletic development aren't reasons enough, this new brand of youth baseball has started turning baseball into a country club sport.  Andrew McCutchen did an amazing job in his blog for The Players Tribune http://www.theplayerstribune.com/left-out/  Recently there was a tournament in my state in a beach town more than 2 hours away.  Three local teams went.  Only one of the teams has any kind of financial aid for their players that I'm aware of to help lower income families participate.  I was told by a mom from another team that their family's out of pocket expenses for baseball for one of her son's in 2014 was over $4200.  There is a reason, we are losing the urban youth to our amazing sport.

So what do we do?  I was faced with this last year.  As the father of a 7 year-old boy and a former major leaguer other parents came to me asking to start a travel team.  My first response was, "are you nuts?  Our kids are seven and eight."  This response softened as the parent's concerns became real to me.  Their thoughts were that if Little Jonny is so far behind other kids in a sport, Little Jonny would be discouraged and not enjoy that sport.  That fear hit home.  I want my boys to enjoy baseball.  I've blogged about my love affair with the sport.  It is one of the three main influences that made me who I am.  I want my kids to play.  It was time to get to work on a new strategy.

I worked hard to find a group of like minded parents.  Notice, I didn't say, "I worked hard to find the best baseball players in town."  These parents wanted their kids to enjoy baseball, grow though baseball, and get better at baseball.  We came up with a plan.  We would all play recreational baseball, but last winter we started practicing two times per month, and playing one tournament each month locally to save on travel costs.  We wanted to help our kids play a better brand of baseball FOR SIX MONTHS ONLY!

It was ugly.  In our first tournament we got run ruled every game.  Kids were stealing on us at will, turning double plays, and even backing up bases on overthrows against us.  The next tourney we actually won one game.  We only went on to only win a total of two travel ball games in all of our first six month season.  We then broke for the summer and fall with the resolve to get back together in the winter.

Something amazing happened when we got back together this past December.  Our kids were faster, stronger, and more mature.  We started our season at the end of December.  We won two games in a very competitive tournament with only three practices under our belts.  In our four tournaments so far this year, we won a smaller tournament, and this past weekend in a very big tournament we came in second.  That was a big deal.  We're number 2 and proud of it.  We lost to a team that may have beat my teams when I was eleven!  I don't know how they come up with these rankings but a statewide ranking system has our group of part-timers ranked #7 in the state.  We will probably never be ranked much higher than this, and that's ok!  We will play our last games of the year in early May.  Some of our kids will play all-stars for their recreational leagues, but by July 4, our goal is that all of our kids will be done playing until December.  Again, we try for only two practices per month and only one tournament a month on top of the recreational schedule for the months of December-May, and it seems to be working.

One last note.  I can hear a lot of parents and travel coaches at this point saying, "I get it, but my kid doesn't get anything out of rec ball.  He has kids on his team that have never played baseball before.  He's getting worse."  Are you sure of that?  Where else can your all-star travel ball playing son be a leader, a teacher, a facilitator?  You cannot manufacture opportunities for your child to be looked up to and asked to help others get better.  Recreational ball is the perfect opportunity for travel ball kids to do this, but if you're playing 120 games per year in travel ball, you child won't have the opportunity to experience this growth as a person not necessarily as a ball player.  

Your child in rec ball also has the chance to broaden his baseball horizons.  On his travel ball team my son primarily plays third and outfield  (all of our kids play at least 2 positions, one infield and one outfield).  In rec ball he gets to catch, play pitcher, first base, as well as the other positions.  Remember me as a below average outfielder for the Braves?  Well before that I was pigeon holed as a catcher.  I would have never thought I would play in the outfield in college or the big leagues, but that's what happened.

I hope this has helped at least start a conversation in your home.  I want to reiterate that I have found the key to doing travel ball this way is the parents!  This can be done inside academies but the academy's primary goal cannot be making a profit or winning trophies.  If that's the case, your child will suffer.  Academies that understand what makes an incredible youth player is not what benefits a player as he gets older and plays in high school are out there.  They may be hard to find, but they are there.   Leslee and I have been blessed with likeminded people when it comes to parenting our kids through sports.  I highly encourage you to find the same support system.  It helps keep us in check when one of our coaches, parents, or even ourselves start taking youth sports too seriously.  We really hold each other accountable.  I pray you can find a sports community like that.