State of the Game Part 3: Play Ball
By: Eric Kaufman
Click here to read Part 2: Commitment
Word Count: 2,574; 9.5 minute read
“What really tied the room together, Dude?”
— Theodore Donald “Donny” Kerabatsos
So far in this three-part State of the Game series, we’ve taken an in-depth look at participation (read Part 1 here) in youth baseball with an emphasis on travel ball. We’ve examined travel ball’s associated costs, how much traveling is typical and what kind of equipment players favor (enjoy Part 2 here). In other words, we’ve talked about everything except baseball. Let’s change that. In Part 3, we’ll finish up this series by illuminating what is happening inside the foul lines, dugouts and coaches’ boxes throughout the country.
By nature, the first two parts of SOTG highlighted the investments made by parents, both in time and money. While parents’ dedication is certainly worthy of being highlighted, it shouldn’t overshadow the commitments made by the real stars of the show, the players, without whom this article would be about a bunch of adults shouting at an empty field.
We touched on this way back at the beginning of Part 1, but we’ll repeat it here. The days of practicing a couple times per week at the nearest park have gone the way of the flip phone. In fact, according to Baseball Youth survey respondents, the majority of travel ball organizations have their own dedicated facilities.
In fact, Texas’s D-BAT Elite owns 52 facilities nationwide that serve as home to 992 (!) instructors. And, oh by the way, they have three more facilities in China with plans to launch 10 more. “A group from China approached us,” said D-BAT Elite coach Cade Griffis, who explained that the same group was responsible for starting basketball academies at the height of Yao Ming’s NBA popularity. “They believe baseball is a growing sport in China and flew into Dallas to meet with us.” Griffis also noted that D-BAT keeps the travel teams separate from the facilities, which are designed for overall instruction, not just that of D-BAT clubs. “We’re neutral, like Switzerland,” he said, adding that none of the instructors coach D-BAT squads.
The D-BAT business model is interesting not only because of its breadth, but also because it is a business model. More and more, travel ball has become a business — supply meeting demand. Over one-third of BY survey respondents indicated they pay membership fees to a facility that aren’t included in their team fees. Additionally, 79.2% reported that their player(s) received training from an instructor outside their travel organization.
“It’s such a specific skill set,” said Brian Sanders, whose son Cameron plays for the 10u Louisville Vipers and takes individual lessons once per week. “Cam is a catcher and there are only so many repetitions he can get during a practice. [I think it’s] especially important that, if he’s going to continue catching, he learns how to do it correctly, to really learn the fundamentals and hopefully mitigate injury risks as he gets older.”
Undoubtedly, one of the biggest positives about individualized training is the amount of attention. By working one-on-one, instructors can correct form in real-time, detect injuries before they become too serious and, of course, improve performance.
However, there are drawbacks. Anderson Monarchs founder Steve Bandura pointed out that the institutionalization of travel ball has led to a decrease in independent, free play. “I think the people who complain about that most are the ones from my generation, the Baby Boomers. We’re the ones that say, ‘When we were young, we used to go out and play ball all the time. We had a neighborhood group of kids who would get together and play.’ Now we feel like we have to put them in, you know, super elite academies so they can go pro and we ruined it.”
There’s more than nostalgia that at risk by losing out on independent play. Former MLB player and current ESPN college baseball analyst Chris Burke explained that there could even be development concerns. “I’m a big believer that baseball is best learned in a backyard format because you get to hit all the time, run the bases all the time. If you fall in love with it, then you can fall in love with the structure.”
That doesn’t mean Burke, who founded Chris Burke Baseball Academy, disavows the importance of specialized instruction. He works with players aged 9-19 during the season before instructing professional players in the winter. The current travel ball structure, meanwhile, is what it is. “I tell my parents I’m here to help you navigate it, not cast aspersions on the current system,” said Burke. “I try to point them in a direction to save them time and money.”
In addition to training facilities, the number of host locations is exploding. Across the country, hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent on increasingly large venues to host the growing number of tournaments. In Sandusky, Ohio, the $24.5M SportsForce Parks features 12 synthetic turf baseball fields, 11 softball fields and eight fields for soccer and/or lacrosse. In Vicksburg, Mississippi, the recently completed SportsForce Parks on the Mississippi includes up to 10 baseball and softball fields, batting cages and seven full-size soccer fields. Both were funded through municipal tax increases. In total, Sports Business Journal’s David Broughton reports that “more than $550 million has been spent over the past three years developing sports facilities designed specifically to host youth sports tournaments.”
“What’s this I hear about you having problems with your TPS reports?”
— Michael Bolton
If you ask any Little League or rec league manager, or if you are one yourself, then you’ll know that managing a group of 12 boys aged 8-18 can sometimes feel like pushing a wheelbarrow with rope handles. As travel ball continues to pick up steam and teams and programs continue to grow, so too does the complexity of managing a team, especially when that team is made up of some of the best players in the area — or, in some cases from other areas.
While there are countless travel teams comprised only of local kids, many of the elite programs bring in kids from other towns, cities and sometimes states. Banditos coach Ray DeLeon explained last summer that his Tomball, Texas, club was hosting kids from New York to California. Dallas Tigers coach Tommy Hernandez explained his thinking in a subsequent conversation, saying, “We get who we get. We develop who we have. I’ll never add players from another state just to win a tournament. Our number one goal is to develop kids.” So, philosophies differ.
Meanwhile, if we can be honest with ourselves, sometimes parental involvement can be a tad more intrusive than is helpful. In fact, our BY survey coach respondents indicated overwhelmingly that in the past two years they have had to defend coaching decisions to a parent.
“It can get a little heated at times,” said Louisville Vipers coach Mike Lauder. “I try to just listen as best I can. But at the end of the day I can’t play 12 kids at shortstop. It’s against the rules.” In case Lauder’s quip didn’t land, consider that just 51% of BY survey respondents reported that their child “always” plays the correct position. Additionally, nearly 65% of coaches and parents reported that playing time is not distributed equally.
“I try to communicate this as best I can,” Lauder added. It’s in our memos, we talk about it in our meetings, but it’s inevitably a problem. Maybe one day they’ll add another pitching mound. That would solve a lot of my problems.”
Health and Wellbeing
“To keep the body in good health is a duty, otherwise we shall not be able to keep our mind strong and clear.”
In most areas of this SOTG series, there is room for different positions. A confluence of factors make many of these issues complex and therefore up for discussion and debate. We’ve done our best here to point out these instances and let you decide for yourself what course of action is best for you and your family.
However, the health and welfare of youth athletes is something we take extremely seriously. Moreover, we believe there is no room for discussion or debate except between medical professionals themselves. To that end, we sought one of the world’s most authoritative voices on the matter of youth baseball injuries. Below is a conversation we had with Dr. E. Lyle Cain, Jr. of the famed Andrews Sports Medicine & Orthopedic Center (condensed for clarity and concision, quotes may not be exact).
Baseball Youth: How many kids do you treat?
Dr. Cain: On any given week, I’ll treat an average of 20 kids.
BY: What is the most common complaint baseball patients have?
DC: Shoulder and elbow pain. Typically, this is the result of growth plate irritation due to overuse. The first finding of this pain usually responds to rest.
BY: What do you think is the root cause of these injuries — beyond just the medical explanation?
DC: In the late 1990s there began a movement toward “professionalization” in youth sports. This has coincided with single-sport specialization [which leads to overuse] and an increasing importance Major League Baseball has placed on velocity. It’s become a velocity-driven sport. There are fewer Greg Maddux types. Teams really don’t draft kids who throw less than 90 [MPH]. That has trickled down [to the youth level].
BY: How so?
DC: For one, there is a lot of max throw practice and heavy ball training to increase velocities. Kids are more likely to get scholarships or get drafted if they can increase their velocity. This increases the torque and causes more damage to the shoulder. Kids are also playing on more than one team at a time, and there can be pressure to throw more than is advisable.
There’s no question that there’s more pressure on kids to play, and kids who throw at a high velocity at an early age also tend to get hurt more due to overuse and mechanical issues.
BY: At what age is it appropriate to start throwing curveballs?
DC: It’s not necessarily related to age. The bottom line is that it’s probably not safe to start throwing curveballs until the growth plates are closed. A general rule of advice is that when it’s time to start shaving, it’s probably okay to start throwing curveballs.
BY: What precautions can parents take when it comes arm care?
DC: There are several, and we have a comprehensive list on our website.
*For convenience, we’ve listed several here. For the complete list, visit the Andrews Sports Medicine & Orthopaedic Center website.
- Warm up properly by stretching, running, and easy, gradual throwing
- Rotate playing other positions besides pitcher
- Concentrate on age-appropriate pitching
- Avoid pitching on multiple teams with overlapping seasons
- Don’t pitch with elbow or shoulder pain, if the pain persists, see a doctor
- Don’t pitch on consecutive days
- Don’t play year-round
- Never use a radar gun
- Communicate regularly about how your arm is feeling and if there is pain
- Emphasize control, accuracy, and good mechanics
- Master the fastball first and the change-up second, before considering breaking pitches
“If this gets out, they won’t let me scuba. If I can’t scuba, then what’s this all been about?”
— Creed Bratton
At the risk of getting entirely too existential about this, the question must be asked: Why? What is it that parents and players hope to get out of the travel ball experience? We ask that question not as an exercise in nihilism — quite the opposite, in fact. There are myriad benefits to travel ball. What we wanted to know is specifically where parents and players hope the experience leads.
Perhaps not unsurprisingly, over 84% of players said they hope travel ball leads to more baseball, with 39% indicating they don’t want to stop until they reach The Show and 35% identifying college — presumably via scholarship — as their ultimate goal. While all goals listed here are laudable, Burke, who holds eight career hitting records at the University of Tennessee, pointed out that “college baseball recruiting, because of the 11.7 rule, is still a regional business. There are not a lot of rosters in America where the kids are from way outside the regional area of that university.”
Of the 36 players listed on the University of Texas’s 2019 roster, all but five are from the Lone Star State. Sure, Texas is a huge state with a massive recruiting base. So, let’s look at a comparatively smaller state, one that borders several other states. The University of Iowa, which borders six states, lists 26 homegrown players on its 2020 roster. Of the 13 who aren’t, nine are from border states Wisconsin, Illinois, Kansas or Minnesota.
The point here is that there may not be as much pressure as parents might think to make sure their child is noticed. “If you’re not sure if your kid’s elite, he’s probably not,” said Burke. “If you have an elite kid at 14-15 years old, there will be schools already interested in your kid’s talents.” The other point here is that kids might not need to feel as much pressure as they do to perform. Just go out and play. The rest will work itself out.
As would be expected, parents have more grounded goals for their children, with just 10.77% saying they either hope or anticipate their child will have a shot at playing in the big leagues. Meanwhile, at 25.64%, a significant portion identified a college scholarship as an ideal goal, which is especially understandable as higher education costs continue to rise throughout the country. A majority of parents, though, indicated that beyond playing in high school, they want their children to pursue their passions and develop life skills, such as teamwork and overcoming adversity.
Zach Miller, whose son played at the Baseball Youth All-American Games and with the Baseball Youth Elite team in Orlando, explained that “we feel that travel baseball provides [our children] with the opportunities to experience new places, meet new kids, and it opens doors that likely would not be there by sticking to our hometown Little League. Using my oldest son as an example, he has been fortunate enough to meet kids from all over the country and experience some really cool events simply due to the fact that he’s been exposed to a lot of new places and people.”
Chad DiCocco, whose son Jonah also played at the BY All-American Games and with BY Elite, said his family would love to see Jonah play in college “because we enjoy watching him and can’t imagine what it will be like when it’s over.” But, he added, “Honestly, the pressure we put on him to perform in the classroom is far greater than anything we expect of him with baseball. Effort and focus on his studies are a must or he doesn’t play baseball. It’s that simple. We expect him to get a college scholarship because of his grades. Baseball ends for everyone at some point.”
In the meantime, the official Baseball Youth position remains the same. Keep bonding as families, keep enjoying every day at the park, and keep having fun. Because as Yogi Berra said, “Love is the most important thing there is, but baseball’s pretty good, too.”
* He also said, “Let’s pair up in threes,” “All pitchers are liars or crybabies,” and “I never said most of the things I said.”