In the summer of 2011, my son, Penn, attended a Baseball Factory showcase in Lebanon, Tennessee. It was attended by around 75 high school players, and their goal was to be chosen for a larger showcase event in Atlanta – one that would be attended by college coaches and professional scouts.
The cost was minimal – $99 – and only involved about 2 hours. It was the usual stuff – ground balls, fly balls, arm strength, speed in the 60 yard dash, hitting, and so on. It was more evaluation than anything, and since Penn would need to do these type events in the years ahead for college exposure, I wanted him to do it now, the summer after his freshman year in high school, to gain experience and knowledge of what these type events involved.
After the showcase ended, we went home and returned our focus to summer baseball.
On the following Tuesday, I received a phone from a Baseball Factory representative in Maryland. He basically informed me that they were impressed with Penn’s skills in the Lebanon showcase, and they felt he would benefit from playing tournaments with their USA 16U team. They would be playing in a tournament in Arizona the next month, and they wanted Penn to join them there.
I was intrigued. “So, how much is involved financially?” I asked. He responded with a list of benefits – multiple uniforms, several games, coaching by former professional players and coaches, hotel, food, and airfare. They would meet him at the airport, take him to the hotel, and the week would begin with his team.
The cost? $3500.
I politely refused his offer, and told him it was way too early and way too expensive for us to participate.
It’s best enjoyed on a sandlot with your friends, or at a big league ball park with your family. Or, even the local ball fields, where the Bears play the Indians in the 10 year-old rec league.
It’s not meant to create a “straw man” of college and big league aspirations for any player willing to pay the fee.
There are things travel baseball can do. First, it raises the level of competition significantly. Take a team from Murfreesboro to Ft. Myers, Florida, and you’ll discover quickly that there are better players out there. Secondly, it can increase exposure if you’re son is interested in playing college baseball. College and professional scouts attend showcases in droves. It’s a convenient one-stop-shopping for coaches that eliminates time and travel overall.
However, the culture of travel baseball has hijacked what was meant to be a simple, innocent game. It’s a multi-million dollar business that preys on the desire of players – and parents – to be the next Mike Trout, or maybe sign with an SEC program. It’s out of control, and it will continue as long as players believe the hype and parents pay the bucks.
The Birth of Travel Ball
My oldest son, Griffin, started travel ball at 11 years-old. I was a coach, along with a couple of other dads, and we were in search of high quality competition. Our reasoning was that if our boys were to be better baseball players, they needed to play against better competition.
So, we bought a uniform, and paid the fees to play in tournaments – about $250/team – most of which were held in Jackson, MS, or Gulfport. Both locations were about an 1 1/2 hour drive, so hotel stays were involved whenever we played. At first, it was a tournament here, a tournament there. But, it quickly evolved to playing every weekend, and that meant more tournament fees and hotel bills.
Since then, both of my boys have played on travel teams as they’ve gotten older. At times, I would go with one, and Michelle would go with the other. Hotel stays were common, but the tournament fees rose steadily. Add to that multiple sets of uniforms and equipment, and the costs skyrocketed.
When I coached travel baseball in the early days, the dads would take it on and it was, well, just part of being a dad. You spent time with your son as he played the game. The cost to play on a team only involved your part of the tournament fees. On a team of 11-12 players, that amounted to about $200 for the summer.
Now, teams will charge between $1200-2000 to play summer baseball. Sound like a lot? In comparison, elite teams will charge a lot more. And, that doesn’t include the cost of travel and meals for the parents and family.
[I know of one program in Ohio that sports a yearly budget of over $1 Million. Elite players from all over the country play on this team, and they play all summer long.]
Why the cost? The coaches (who are not dads) get paid now. The high-end uniforms are many. And, the tournament fees have gone up. What used to cost $250 now costs anywhere between $850 – 1200. For one tournament.
The Tournament Directors
Tournament directors and owners have benefited. Programs like Perfect Game and others will host and sponsor tournaments every week. These tournaments will run from Tuesday to Sunday. Clean the park on Monday, and start another one on Tuesday.
What’s the appeal? Pristine fields, your own web page for recruiting, and playing in front of college coaches and professional scouts.
For example, the World Wood Bat Association holds tournaments every summer in Atlanta for every age group starting at 14U. There are over 150 teams playing in the 16U tournament, and that number explodes to well over 200 teams in the 17U tournament. That’s approximately $800/team. You do the math.
The culture of travel baseball has taken over what once was simple and innocent. Coaches and tournament directors and recruiting organizations know that parents will pay for the promise and guarantee of exposure to college coaches and scouts. They know you’ll do whatever it takes for your player to get every opportunity he needs.
So, as a parent, you pay to play. You make the sacrifice. You do your part.
But, that’s where it ends. Once the bill is paid, little else is done by anyone to guarantee exposure and recruiting.
Travel baseball has become the Big Lie.
Lest you think I’m a bitter dad whose sons didn’t get the opportunity to play, I’m not.
My oldest son has combined an academic scholarship with an athletic scholarship and has yet to pay a dime out of his pocket as he plays in a D1 program.
My younger son will continue playing college baseball at the JUCO level this fall.
My issue, though, with travel baseball is that there are people involved who take advantage of gullible parents who believe their player will go on to the next level. They prey on your desire to want something for your child, as well as the guilt you’ll have when your player’s friends are playing and you chose not to do it.
And, the thing is, these people know it. They know what they’re doing.
If your player throws 92 mph, or he’s 6’5 and 230 lb. with a “Ted Williams” swing, he’ll play at the next level. If not, just enjoy the summer and the games and the popcorn.
Spend your money prepping for the ACT.