Travel Ball: the Minor, Minor, Minor Leagues?

17 U WWBA National Championship at Perfect Game Park South, LakePoint Georgia

17 U WWBA National Championship at Perfect Game Park South, LakePoint Georgia

As my son and I heave a well-worn equipment bag, cooler, umbrella & sideline chair into the trunk of the car, ready to log another 600 miles to attend the 6th of 8 scheduled travel ball tournaments, I wonder what tweens and teens did in summers past. Since Google knows all, still standing in the garage, I look it up on my phone.

Over 150 years ago: farmers were 70% of the labor force, so there were crops and animals to tend; the Civil War was raging and 13-year-old boys enlisted as “drummer boys”. On the lighter side, also in the 1860’s, the first summer camp (in Connecticut) dedicated to outdoor adventures was founded and the YMCA built its very first building with a gymnasium.

While Native American stickball has been documented as a ‘sport’ since before the Mayflower landed, it was just 75 years ago when the Little League organization was organized. The first official game, featuring 3 teams, was played at Park Point in Williamsport, PA, in 1939.

We are a long way from that inaugural 3-team Little League tournament of 1939. There are now over 2 million Little Leaguers on 7,000 teams. As the kids age out of Little League, they join summer travel ball teams which also number in the thousands. At the nationally recognized WWBA tournament that takes place every July in LakePoint, Georgia (see photo above), the 17 and unders alone fielded 300 teams that played on 40+ field locations over a 10-day period. The thought of 6,000 17-year-old boys descending on any one area ought to give city officials nightmares! In reality, according to tournament officials, tens of thousands of teenagers and their families attending the WWBA travel ball games during the 3-week period have an estimated economic impact of $100 million in Cobb County.

Many familiar with travel ball criticize the distances travelled, the money spent, the obsessive-compulsive parents, the often disorganized & uncommunicative coaches. These criticisms are absolutely fair. The registration fees are high. Gas is expensive, plane tickets more so.  A disorganized coach adds to a family’s cost by failing to communicate with the parents in a timely manner. I know one parent who was told at 10 pm to put their son on a plane to the Georgia tournament the very next day. Last minute plane fare. Ouch! From a more socio-economic/political perspective, that not all families can avail themselves of these showcase adventures certainly adds to the frustration of those pursuing a college baseball future for their players.

The ‘economic impact’ to cities does not happen solely because players and families travel to tournaments to play a few games of baseball. A primary reason travel ball exists is to showcase talent. ‘Showcasing’ infers that recruiters and scouts are part of the tournament mix. If hundreds of college institutions and the MLB did not send scouts to tournaments like the WWBA, the entire travel ball industry would likely disappear. But, to paraphrase ‘Field of Dreams’, the WWBA is building 16 fields at LakePoint and everybody will come. Annually.

It is stating the obvious that every little leaguer dreams of playing in the MLB. It is also clear that the statistics are against this ever happening! And yet, kids across the United States willingly pay $5000 each summer to travel thousands of miles to pitch or hit in front of scouts from the MLB and all Divisions in the NCAA, NAIA and NJCAA.

Is it worth it? I say, resoundingly, yes! Everyone benefits from the travel ball juggernaut. First of all, travel clubs' existence fills the vacuum created by underfunded middle- and high-school sports programs. Little leaguers age out and really have no other place to play.  At many travel ball tournaments, kids get to see and play a higher caliber of ball than they usually do on their hometown or varsity fields. The question “are they good enough” is answered immediately, if sometimes painfully, once they watch and play against national competition. College coaches benefit from the travel ball enterprise because, in one location, they can assess the validity of the hundreds of ‘recruiting questionnaires’ they receive daily on their team websites.

Some parents worry that these travel ball showcases are really only for pitchers and catchers since, by virtue of their positions, they are guaranteed 'plays'. Having interviewed numerous coaches doing the recruiting, this is not justified. Each scout has a list of recruiting possibilities they must evaluate. Coaches and scouts spend long, intense days, jumping from field to field, checking out position players as well as pitchers. If they are looking for a middle infielder with decent grades who will be available in two years, or a lefty pitcher with a wicked change-up who is stellar academically, at the Georgia tournament, for example, they know they can find one. With funding levels iffy at most baseball programs at the college level, a coach can round out their program with the cost of just one plane ticket and a few nights of hotel reservations. Tellingly, the biggest gripe scouts have with these tournaments is that many travel ball coaches can’t be relied on to play the players they are following according to the scout’s schedule. Or even to post the roster on the tournament website ahead of time to give the scouts a heads-up.

17 U Perfect Game World Series, Goodyear Arizona

17 U Perfect Game World Series, Goodyear Arizona

In fact, travel ball coaches are almost schizophrenic in developing their tournament rosters: Is the tournament a showcase or is it a tournament they want to win or is it both? I watched one team switch pitchers every inning to maximize his players' visibility in front of the 30+ scouts in attendance at just one of the dozens of games playing at that time slot. The opposing team fielded 2 pitchers. Turns out the 2-pitcher team won the game.  Obviously, your local travel ball team will have an easier job recruiting younger players to their team when they win at these big tournaments.

A visit to any travel ball team’s website emphasizes the 'wins', of course, but also something even more important: college recruitment.  Parents of younger players looking for a good travel team want to know: Where have the travel ball team’s players committed? A travel ball team needs to post wins and be successful in recruitment to keep their business in play. The best travel ball teams are excellent at recruiting the younger players, excel at player development, play good tournaments, and have great connections to a wide range of college coaches (across the divisions).

Helpful hints if you are looking for a travel ball team:  Which tournaments do they travel to; ask for references of parents who have been on the team; how is communication handled; is the coach a “screamer”; how is the roster developed; how far in advance does the family know if and when their student will play (so college coaches can be notified!); is there an "A" team and a "B" team; is the coach organized; how much 'player development' actually takes place.

If you can finance a travel ball adventure, I heartily recommend it. And, if you can't, I recently heard that Perfect Game might be able to help direct you to funding sources. At the very least, play locally and communicate directly with your 'wish list' of college coaches. If you look at the rosters of many college teams, not every single player has played the high-profile, national tournaments.

No matter what level of ball you are playing or hope to play, enjoy the adventure!