At some point on the little field, you or your son will be approached by a parent (a.k.a crazy recruiter) or a coach asking if your son would want to play on a travel baseball team. Usually this is how it happens. That’s how it happened with my son as he approached the end of his little league machine pitch season. It was an 8u kid-pitch travel baseball team. A couple well-meaning dads, who knew a lot more about baseball than I did, said they were going to put together and coach a travel baseball team. They had verbal commits from many of the top players in the area and they were going to play in some of the best tournaments in central Florida. And, of course, my son was one of their hand-picked choices. He didn’t even have to tryout. I was sold. Sign him up. Or should I say, “Sign up the entire family,” because little did we know that our weekends were now relegated to driving all over creation for tournaments where he would play at least three to five games in pursuit of some coveted championship trophy or whatever else they decided to give out (i.e. Rings, t-shirts, medals, hats, etc.). But assuming you are sold on this travel baseball lifestyle, here’s a couple things your might want to consider when selecting a travel baseball program. Fit will be a constant theme.
The name of the game in youth travel baseball is development and fun. A couple well-meaning dads is okay at 8u through 9u. But at 10u through 12u, you’ll probably want coaches who played higher than high school. It doesn’t matter if they’re dads, but if they played in college or even some pro-ball, then you’re probably in a good spot. The coaches need to emphasize heavy individual skill development with age-appropriate training to help grow their players at ALL positions and phases of the game. Sitting for an hour and a half running 15 different bunt defense plays and 8 different 1st & 3rd plays is not where you want your son to be. Some of that is indeed important, but overkill on the tactics rather than time well-spent on individual skill development will shortchange your player in the long run. Development over trophies. Winning is great, but “how” the team is winning is also just as important. The head coach sets the tone. Are there team rules and does the coach enforce them? Team USA has a good model for team rules that every parent and player must sign. And does the coach respect arm safety and pitch counts? If not, run.
A travel team organization will usually field teams in multiple age groups. Many times there is a leadership structure and the coaches of each team will all meet occasionally to discuss tournament scheduling, practice plans, fundraising, uniforms, administration, etc. These organizations will routinely send their teams to specific tournaments each season and have great relationships with tournament directors who can help your team play back to back in pool play or only on certain days if need be. For years, these organizations have been sending their 12u teams to Cooperstown Dreams Park for their season finale (Not every team can go to this tournament but if your organization continues to send a team each year, their spot for the next year’s 12u team is reserved). Organizational structure is good. Tryouts are required and conducted by coaches who don’t have a kid on the team. They attract better players. Teams stick together for multiple years. Usually the organization has a director of player development who is a former pro or college player. They put on coaching clinics for the less experienced coaches so the organization can have some standardization for their instruction and player development. Plus these organizations will have access to practice fields during the week which will keep workouts consistent .
3. Financial Commitment
Some of the travel baseball teams will have a season that lasts 12-15 tournaments. They are trying to pick up 60-70 games each season. In Florida, it is not uncommon for the travel baseball team to do this in both the fall and spring. So that’s 25-30 tournaments and 120+ games. They play in the highest levels of the most competitive tournaments and recruit heavily in order to field a team with the best chances to win. If you go in that direction, and I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, be ready to pay and fundraise your butt-off. Do the math for hotels, gas, food, air fare, organization dues, coaches fees, tournament/umpire fees, uniforms (home/away/alternate/alternate to the alternate/stars & stripes/pink), practice field fees, and equipment (don’t forget that $399 bat!). Know what you’re getting into. Particularly if the team recruits a stud player half-way through the season and guess which position he plays? You guessed it — your son’s! But don’t feel like you’re son is getting left-behind if you don’t go with these Goliath teams. There are plenty of organizations that play eight tournaments a season (two per month); all local venues with the exception of a season finale. Maybe one to two practices during the week. Two uniforms max. And a couple team bats if you don’t want to spend $399 on a bat that will be out of date by the end of season. Trust me, your son won’t miss a beat with these local travel teams if you decide they’re a better fit for your son and family.
4. Playing Time
This goes without saying. It probably could be #1 on the list. For example, if your travel organization fields two teams in your son’s age group, would it be better to roster on the “A” team and sub into games, or roster on the “B” team and start? If you answered the “B” team, you are correct! The most important thing in youth travel baseball is for your son to play. And don’t get hung up on playing just shortstop or some other position. Your son needs to play a variety of positions both infield and outfield. Beware of teams that field 12 or 13 players. The ideal team size is 10 or 11 players. This will allow your son to get max reps at practice and in games. And if your son can bat in the top/middle of the order, your son will get plenty of plate appearances. But if your son is constantly in the back of the order, sitting defensively for at least two innings per game, and only plays in the outfield, I would seriously look for another team after the season ends.
The parents can make or break a team. What are their expectations? Are they trophy chasers? Do they care about player development? What about arm safety? Do they allow their player to throw more pitches after they’ve reached their pitch count? “Well, that’s on the coaches,” you say. No it’s not. The parents need to protect their own and take arm safety seriously. And if the parents on your team don’t care, there will be pressure for you not to care either. Big mistake. Are the parents low-key and have a healthy approach? Or are they living vicariously? Do they ride their kids constantly, putting unnecessary pressure on them? Do they constantly coach from the stands? Do they thumb their nose at the team rules? Argue with the coaches? Argue with the umpires? Argue with the other parents? If it’s just one parent, then chances are that they’ll quit before the end of the season and move to another team. But if it’s a handful of parents, then the team is likely headed for a break-up or a coaching change. So if you can get a feel for the parents before joining, it will be well worth your time in the long-run.