Travel baseball has exploded in popularity.
Once limited to elite players in baseball hotbeds, it now permeates to every part of the sport, every age group. No longer is it limited to the best of the best, looking to show off their skills in front of major league scouts, but to average players and players who are looking to hone their skills too.
This brings forth quite the opportunity. Now, players can focus on their development as they compete in this new version of competitive baseball, one with specialized development facilities, more knowledgeable coaching staffs and an increased level of competition.
They’re starting them young in travel baseball nowadays, with tournaments being held for kids as young as seven years old. While many players get into the club ball ranks later, it does bring forth an interesting question: how do I know which team to join?
With how complicated the sport can get, how convoluted its organization can sometimes be, it’s a fair question. There are so many teams sprouting up across the country, many promising special opportunities, unique travel experiences and better exposure for younger players. Furthermore, many of these teams compete differently, as some play in local tournaments alongside more casual competition while others only play the best of the best in tournaments spanning from coast to coast.
So, how do you pick the right travel baseball team? Unfortunately, there’s no ultimate easy answer for what team is the best for your family. However, by weighing your priorities against those of the local clubs under consideration, you may be able to get a better picture and find the right fit.
When contemplating that question, there are a few important things to look for. We’ve broken them down for you below.
Perhaps the most important factor is a club’s mission. This is a large driver of fit and can help ensure a smooth process for all involved. Many teams have different mission. Some want to win at all costs, stacking the trophy case and adding championships to their name. Others aren’t as focused on wins or losses, rather focusing on player development and equal playing time.
Ultimately, there’s nothing wrong with either approach. If kids are having fun seeking titles, then that’s great. If they’re having fun playing baseball and getting better, that’s fun too. That’s because each team will attract like-minded families and players – people who are supportive of the team’s mission and its way of conducting itself.
Most teams have clear statements about their club’s focus. By reading these, you can get a better understanding of what they are about. Furthermore, nothing beats the spoken word. Don’t hesitate to ask other parents questions about the team and their child’s experience. While written statements are fine and well, they mean nothing if a team is doing nothing to back them up and practice what they preach.
That’s why it’s so valuable to take the time to do the research. While it can be easy to just join the first team, to just dive into the deep end and make the process quick, this won’t ensure a good fit. By doing research, talking to players, coaches and parents, and keeping a close eye on the travel ball environment in your area, you can better understand team’s missions, their priorities and how you and your family would fit in that environment.
Travel baseball can be a time sink, especially on weekends.
Most teams play their games over a three-day span, sometimes playing more than two games each day. That is because travel baseball is a tournament-oriented experience, where single games are a rarity. This is generally how each team does it, so if you’re willing to take the dive into travel baseball, be willing to sacrifice your weekends to do so.
The amount of each weekend you must sacrifice depends on the travel team, as does the total number of weekends. While some teams play in the spring and summer, once Little League and other organized recreational leagues end, others turn it into a year-round endeavor, playing baseball in each season.
By playing baseball across the year, it means a child must make sacrifices. There may be less time for vacations, less time to hang out with their friends and less time to just be a kid, Furthermore, it means that baseball becomes the priority and other sports must fall to the wayside. When playing travel baseball for a year-round club, there’s no room to play football, basketball or soccer. It’ll be baseball, baseball and more baseball.
This is not an issue if a child knows that baseball is the sport that they want to pursue. However, it can become an issue if a player plays another sport or is more interested in their athletic development. Furthermore, playing baseball in each season can lead to injuries, as repetitive usage puts strain on still-developing bodies.
Some baseball teams only travel locally, resulting in less time spent on the road and making it easier for parents to watch their children play. Other teams travel regionally or nationally, making it harder and more expensive to do so.
Furthermore, weekday practices will take place. If a team is more serious, there will be more of them too. Therefore, a good question to ask other parents is how many hours they spend each week around the team. From there, you can access your priorities and figure out if the time commitment is worth it.
Don’t be afraid to ask those questions when talking to coaches and organizers. Think of their answers as an extension of their mission statement, where you can see the priorities that they hold and the way in which they expect their team to function.
Travel baseball costs money – a good bit of it, really.
That’s because it costs money to enter tournaments, to rent fields, to buy uniforms and to pay coaches. For some teams, this can amount to close to $10,000, though USA Today pegs the average cost at $3,700.
Time spent on the road makes up a large chunk of the higher fees. Playing in tournaments across the country requires airfare and hotel rooms, which can total hundreds of dollars each tournament. However, some of that money does go toward specialized training and coaching at facilities that are focused on developing younger players. This ensures that training is more advanced and development is quicker, resulting in a bid advantage for those more costly teams. Furthermore, access to specialized coaches results in players staying ahead of the curve and learning the newest and most advanced training methods that are driving player development at the highest levels of baseball.
For some, that’s enough to make up for the higher costs.
However, there are many alternatives to these types of teams. There are many clubs that are focused on getting in-game experience and are less focused on the specialized training. While this may offer less development potential, it’s better for parents who aren’t ready to break the bank in order to join a prestigious team, or for players who are looking for a more laid-back approach.
The thing that parents need to know is that each of these teams cost money – heck, the whole travel ball experience does. So, when that bill comes, it shouldn’t come as a surprise. However, there are ways for parents to find more affordable travel teams that still offer good developmental options, and it’s worth keeping in mind that generally, you get what you pay for.
When I was in eighth grade, I played on a club that had more than 50 players spread out across three teams. We had an “A” squad, a “B” squad and a “C” squad, each dedicated to players of a certain skill level, facing equally skilled talent in their tournaments.
While we would practice together once a week, we would split off into our individual teams for cage time and pitching work, getting hands-on instruction at an individual level.
We had 15 guys on each team, enough to have a nice bench and bullpen reserve while the other 9 took the field. This was great because it allowed us to get more playing time, as somebody was always gone each weekend and we rotated quite a bit. Meanwhile, having a larger organization played into our strengths as well. We were able to get the best coaching possible and then use that coaching to compete against teams that were on our level. It was the perfect fit for maximum player development.
Thus, as you begin to peruse the world that is travel baseball, team size is one thing that you must keep in mind. Too many players and your child may not get a shot to see the field all that often. Too few, and the organization’s stability might fall into question.
One of the workarounds that some clubs use is to have multiple teams for each age group, just as the club I played for did. This offers the best of both worlds, indicating a stable, strong organization that can afford good coaching while making sure each team is able to thrive against squads that match its ability.
As players matriculate up the baseball ladder, the ultimate goal becomes clearer and clearer. College baseball and professional baseball are on the minds of many teenage players who participate in club ball. Many are looking for a way to catch a coach or scout’s eye, hoping to play in college or in professional baseball.
This often occurs at the high school level, where travel clubs often begin to serve different purposes. For some teams, it’s about getting high school players experience during the summertime, allowing them to ward off the rust that might otherwise set in. For other clubs, it becomes about getting their top players maximum exposure in tournaments that are held across the country, tournaments that are a must-see event for pro scouts and college coaches alike.
But travel baseball takes a different form at this level as it becomes more and more individualized. Players will often attend showcase camps, where they can flash their tools in front of a prestigious audience. Usually, these camps or showcases feature a combine as well as in-game action, and it becomes less about winning.
However, this stage of travel baseball is the perfect breeding ground for opportunists to thrive. Because some of these teams are for-profit entities, there is money to be made off naïve players and families.
That’s why families must know where their player stands in the world of competitive baseball. They should know if he is a serious professional or college prospect, or just someone who is trying to continue to hone his skills and see what opportunities come up along the way. Families also need to be vigilant about the teams that sprout up, offering widespread exposure. Research is key, as are first-hand accounts from former players and their families. Don’t be afraid to ask questions in this part of the process, to challenge the coaches if their promises seem too good to be true. One of the best ways to do this is to ask for specifics – what players have come out of the program before? What colleges and organizations are attending these showcases? Asking these questions will ensure a smooth process for you and your player.
Baseball is meant to be fun. Travel ball is no exception. Though player development might be the focus, there should always be an emphasis on the lighter side of the game, the part of it that makes it so magical. If baseball is not fun, if it becomes a chore, then there’s no use going forward with it – the fun is taken out of the game.
Bad coaching and bad experiences can drive a player away from the game. This is a reality at the travel ball level. That’s why picking the right travel baseball team is so important – because the best fit means the most amount of fun.
A lifelong baseball fan, Jacob Prothro has covered all levels of baseball for MLB.com, The Wichita Falls Times Record News and Rivals.com. Prior to that, he was a light-hitting outfielder in the Texas high school ranks. In his free time, Jacob roots for the San Francisco Giants and plays in a men’s league, where he still hasn’t figured out how to hit a curve.