Baseball has changed.
Well, not the game necessarily. The diamond is still the same dimensions, as is the distance from the rubber to the plate. But the way the game is played has changed – specifically at the youth level.
For decades, organized youth baseball was a seasonal sport, played on town diamonds under the banner of Little League Baseball. Each spring, kids would join their local league and play with their friends, against teams made up of kids from the same town, coached by a group of fathers. There was little travel, little intermingling. It was a local sport, unless you made the All-Star team.
Youth baseball was based around recreational leagues, with little emphasis put on the competitive nature. There was a set schedule, with spaced-out games and a hyperlocal focus. It was just a spring sport, one of many sports played by youth across America.
Now, things are different. Kids who play baseball have a chance to forge their own path, to take part in more than just recreational leagues played in the springtime. The recent introduction of youth travel baseball has made it easier for young players to specialize in the sport that they love, focusing on their development on a team that plays throughout the year.
Travel baseball can be difficult to get involved in. Many times, there is anxiety surrounding it, with questions that are hard to answer. Is it worth it? How much travel is involved? What team should my child join? What will he gain from it?
We’re here to break it down for you, uncovering some of the secrecy surrounding travel baseball.
What Is Travel Baseball?
Travel baseball is a relatively new way to play. Until recently, travel teams only existed in parts of the country that were baseball hotbeds – places like Florida, Southern California and Virginia. Only elite players took part, the best of the best, and it was focused on the upper levels of youth baseball, where scouts could get a better look at developing players, gauging their professional prospects.
It was intended to be more of a showcase for older players, but in the last twenty years, baseball at the youth level has evolved considerably. Now, travel baseball is almost a necessity for any player that’s looking to hone their skills and be serious about baseball. Instead of being a place for a young player to showcase their skills, it has become a place where a younger player can develop, can receive specialized instruction. It’s also a way to face an increased level of competition.
Travel baseball isn’t a monolith. It goes by several different names: select ball, club ball and premier ball. There are several different governing bodies, including USSSA, Perfect Game, AAU and Triple Crown Sports. But each team has something in common: the structure of its season.
Instead of being focused on individual games, spaced out through the week with practices and off-days, a regular season and postseason, travel ball is centered around tournaments.
Most of these tournaments happen on the weekends. Teams can play several games each day during a tournament, sometimes against teams from different governing bodies. These tournaments are not always local, as some of the best teams travel across the country to compete, while others prefer to stay closer to home.
Teams in travel ball can be started by anyone. Sometimes they’re started by a baseball academy, while other times they’re started by a group of parents looking to branch out from a Little League. Some teams have squads in each age bracket, for each level of baseball ability, while others are the only team to bear their name.
It must be noted that due to its competition structure, travel baseball is pay-to-play. Entering tournaments costs money, as does renting batting cages and getting field time. Thus, travel baseball costs money, which to some people, is a deal breaker.
How Much Does It Cost?
Here’s the short answer: it depends.
What does it depend on? The structure of the team, the level at which it plays, and the travel that’s involved.
Sometimes, those fees are high, in the thousands each year. This is mostly confined to teams at the elite level, teams that travel frequently and enter tournaments with top-tier squads. And while parents may fork out thousands of dollars for their child to play, that amount doesn’t include travel costs. Those will have to be paid for out of pocket, especially for parents who want to see their child play in far-away states, where high-level tournaments are held.
However, for teams that travel locally, have volunteer coaches and enter less expensive tournaments, the costs can be exponentially lower, in the hundreds each season.
So why fork over all that money? Why should your child play this type of baseball? Because, it has its advantages, many of which lead to increased developmental opportunities that a young player would otherwise miss out on.
What Are The Advantages Of Travel Baseball?
There’s a reason travel baseball is so popular among parents and players alike. Playing baseball for a club team can help younger players develop more and specialize in their favorite sport by playing it year-round. But structurally, it provides a number of advantages over regular baseball.
Here are a few advantages that travel baseball provides:
- Better coaching
- Increased competition
- Specialized training
- Team bonding
- Increased exposure
The old cliché about the typical Little League coach is that he’s the father of a player. In his mind, his kid is the star of the team, even if that’s not the case on the field. The coach probably played some baseball growing up but doesn’t know the technique or the strategy that the coach at the local high school does. He isn’t paid, nor is he all that experienced.
Travel baseball differs in that it offers players the opportunity to learn from coaches who are more focused on development. Many travel-ball coaches have coached for years and some even offer private lessons on the side. Sometimes, teams even have a fulltime coach who is paid strictly to coach the younger players.
Because the coaches are more experienced, the players get better teaching. Hitting practices can be spent refining a certain technical part of the swing. Players who develop a mechanical flaw can work with a coach to fix it quickly. Coaches can look at a player’s skillset and marry him to a position, focusing on the little aspects of that position that matter the most.
Some teams even have a full staff of coaches – a pitching coach, hitting coach and a manager. This means players become more polished and can harness more of their raw ability earlier. It means that they can unlock hidden potential from a coach that can teach them how to get more break on a curve or add a little juice to their fastball – something that they wouldn’t have been able to do in a recreational league.
Recreational leagues have a low barrier of entry. While this is great for encouraging a passion for the game, it’s not always a great setting in which to develop. Players come from all skill levels and for some, it’s their first time holding a baseball.
What about players who want to specialize in their sport, who know early on that they want to be the best they can be at baseball? What good do they get from playing someone who doesn’t want that – someone with less experience and less polish? What good do they get from someone who is rusty around the edges and can’t throw strikes?
Not much, that’s for sure.
That’s why travel ball is such an advantage for most younger players – because it consists of players with a like-minded mindset, most of whom are focused on their development. That means that players are more polished, that curves have sharper breaks, and those infield grounders are converted into outs more often than not.
The old saying is that if you want to be the best, you have to face the best. That’s why travel ball can be so valuable to younger players – they can gauge their abilities against the best competition and see how they stack up.
Additionally, many teams have “B” and “C” teams. While these teams may not face the best of the best, they’re great for players who are still developing their talents. That’s because those players can face talent at their level as they refine their game, maintaining their confidence and focusing on what they need to improve and sharpen going forward.
For what it’s worth, I had to play on one of those “C” teams one season, as I worked on my skills behind the plate. For me, it was great, because I got to work on my approach behind the plate and focus on positivity. It really did wonders for my game, in the long-term timeline, because my confidence was high going into the next season, when I rejoined my regular team.
I’m huge on specialized training, especially when it comes to fielding. Really, this advantage of travel baseball is an outgrowth of the advanced coaching one receives, but it is so, so critical in order to become a great player.
While often overlooked, fielding is key to become a well-rounded player. And as a former light-hitting outfielder, I can attest to the fact that it can be a way to get noticed and get playing time, even if you don’t hit well.
Some of the best training I received in travel ball was fielding training that focused on footwork in the outfield, leading to better routes taken to fly balls and ultimately, better range. It was highly technical training, something that I doubt I could have received elsewhere.
For catchers and pitchers, this is especially true. Catching is something that is hard to teach in recreational ball – you either have it or you don’t. But in travel ball, catchers can focus on honing their craft during practices, working newly created drills that really help receiving and controlling runners.
Because a lot of travel teams have their roots in baseball academies and developmental centers, it is easier to get sidework in, and field time is also easier to obtain. That clears a major hurdle when it comes to developmental work.
In recreational leagues, you’re playing with your friends and acquaintances. It can be cool, since most of y’all go to school with one another and grew up playing together. However, those bonds are not as strong as the ones forged in travel ball.
Because of the sport’s nature, with intense training, many hours spent together, and yes, travel time, the bonds forged by club ball are stronger. The atmosphere sometimes mimics that of higher levels, as players share the same buses and hotel rooms on trips.
Interpersonal bonds are formed by time spent together and a shared sense of purpose, often in the face of adversity. In travel ball, where weekend tournaments consume free time and practice is held most days, there’s plenty of that to go around. With shared interests and a focus on development, players have more in common – thereby making those bonds easier to forge.
Sports create lifelong friends, and travel ball is a testament to that.
Here’s a shocker, one that you may not have noticed yet: in travel ball, teams get the opportunity to travel. Crazy, right? Anyway, one of the big advantages of travel baseball is the opportunity to go beyond the local sandlot, even if it’s just locally. Some of the smaller teams focus on limited travel, never going more than a few hours out of their way, but that still affords a younger player a chance to see other parts of the country, a chance to get out of the confines of their own backyard.
Other teams travel more – around the region or even nationally. This gives players a chance to really broaden their horizons, but it’s also very exciting. There’s something special about going to a tournament two states away to prove your worth. For a younger player, it’s fun to spend time with teammates in hotel rooms – almost like a short vacation during the time off.
For parents, it can be fun too. Many of these tournaments are hosted in centrally located cities, where amenities and attractions are plentiful. For example, Orlando commonly hosts these tournaments because it is centrally located, with an excess of fields.
Local tournaments can feature more than just baseball there, as parents and players alike can visit one of the city’s amusement parks.
This one is for the players at higher levels. At the summit of club baseball, it can still be very much as it was in its early days, where showcases of talent are the main priority. Organizations like Perfect Game provide weekend-long tournaments dedicated to players who want to be seen in front of major league scouts. They take time to go through a combine, showing off their bat, arm, glove and speed, before taking part in a few games.
Plenty of folks are watching, from college coaches to MLB executives. And they’re all looking for the next big thing.
That kind of exposure is something you can’t get in high school ball, where the rosters are less talent rich. By consolidating so many pro prospects, it becomes a must-see event, one in which a player who puts together a good showing can go from a non-prospect to a prospect.
Is It For You?
Ultimately, the decision to play club baseball is up to individual families. They must weigh the advantages against the costs and the time that must be spent to make such a commitment.
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.