This is a guest post by Larry Owens, head baseball coach at Bellarmine University
It starts early
Travel baseball picked up steam about 20 years ago.
As I look back today, it is easy to see its transformation over the years. As a young college baseball coach in the mid 90s, the summer baseball weekend tournament format begin to trickle down to the younger age groups. From that point on, it has spiraled out of control in a very bad way.
With that said, please understand that there are some travel baseball organizations that do a good job or as good a job as they can with the model that was created and has evolved. I want to be clear: I feel that most of the people involved in travel baseball absolutely want what is best for the kids but the model we currently have will not allow for what is best for the kids. This is in no way a knock on the people involved, but rather the structure.
The thought process is that the earlier we present “competitive” opportunities for the so called “elite”, “advanced” player, the better it will be for his development as a player. In my opinion, travel baseball will not help the player develop in this way. Again, in my opinion, it actually stunts his growth as a player and possibly a person.
The overall problem I see with travel baseball at all ages is that they don’t practice enough as a team and the focus on winning is too great. Playing games alone is not the road to better player development. Today’s youth baseball player has many opportunities to get individual skill instruction from the local pitching, hitting, fielding and strength & conditioning gurus. This skill development is important and as a result the individual skills may be better in most of the youth players today but their knowledge of how to the play game and the team fundamentals that go hand-in-hand with their development is lacking greatly.
It was very noticeable at the professional level. The time I spent in player development, we were often teaching things to young minor leaguers that we felt we had no business teaching. I feel the lack of game knowledge in today’s youth player is a by-product of the youth player playing 50, 60, 70 games or more over the spring, summer and fall and not practicing enough as a team. Then the youth player becomes a teen and enters high school where he feels he has to go to every showcase on the planet and play on the so-called “best travel team” to keep up with the Joneses to get an opportunity to be seen by college and professional scouts to advance their baseball careers. Players without a doubt get exposure but at what expense?
Now, to the travel team’s defense, it is a lot to ask of a 10-year-old and his family to practice 2-3 times a week and then play the demanding weekend schedule that is in front of them, which can be four or more games in two days. That is the problem. The main focus continues to be on the amount of games they play, winning tournaments and comparing your kids’ ability to others, etc. The focus should be on player and people development. The fact that your son needs to play on these teams to get opportunities down the road is simply not true. I’ll give some examples later.
Now take the high school-aged player. He may never have one team practice with his travel team the ENTIRE SEASON. I find it very unfortunate that time and time again, recruits tell me they don’t practice with their respective summer travel teams at all during the season. That’s a big problem. All of the team fundamentals take a back seat: cuts/relays, bunt coverages, rundowns, positioning, 1st and 3rd (1st and 2nd) defense, team PFP, fly ball priority, holding runners, situational hitting and pitching, being a good teammate, etc. The team fundamentals are the key ingredient to slow the game down for the players, and if these things are not worked on, the players will certainly not develop and the game will not slow down.
Once again, it’s hard to blame the high school-aged travel teams for not practicing enough as a team when some of the team members may reside hours away from each other, which presents a logistics problem. I get it.
There are many ways to improve the state of amateur baseball but I don’t think it will change for the better. Everyone wants a quick fix, a magic pill, the secret to success. It isn’t out there in that form, folks. There is no magic formula to produce the next Bryce Harper or Clayton Kershaw.
If there is a formula, it is somewhere in the neighborhood of working hard, working practical and working smart. It also involves a little luck and good genetics from time to time. It isn’t as easy as simply playing against good competition. If it were, everyone would develop into a very talented player with the ability to play at the highest of levels.
Let’s take a look at the average professional day during the summer at the lower levels of the minor leagues. A full season team will play 140 games in a season. They pack 140 games into five months. Days off are precious so there are no team practices on those days. So when do they practice? They practice before games. When a roving instructor is in town, there will be early work in a specific area. There are rovers for pitching, hitting, infield, outfield, catching, bunting and base running. When the catching coordinator is in town, the catchers will come out for early work. There is, on occasion, more than one rover in town at the same time. After early work, the team will work on a team fundamental. Two times a week, the pitching coach will get the pitchers out early for some PFPs. Some organizations require the team to take infield every day or every other day. The team will take batting practice, then eat and get dressed for the game. They are usually required to be on the field 30 minutes prior to game time. It is important to play games to gain experience and apply what you have worked on. It is also very important to work on team fundamentals as well as individual skills, and it is necessary in order to develop the player. It is done at the highest levels but not done at the “Elite”, “Travel Team” level.
At the college and high school levels, it is commonplace for the team to either have a game or practice six days of the week. This affords them the opportunity to work on all aspects of the game. A typical week would include 3-5 games and 2-3 practices each week with a common day off each week. In high school, the common day off is usually Sunday and in college, the common day off is typically Monday. All other days the team is usually practicing or playing games.
As parents and travel baseball coaches, we want to mirror what is done with baseball clubs at the highest levels as much as we can, but are we really doing this? The uniforms, the nice baseball fields, the bats, the balls, the wrist bands, the eye black, the equipment bags, the sponsorship, the travel, the overnight trips staying in hotels, etc. We try really hard, but we are missing one key ingredient. We don’t practice enough as a team and we don’t work on team fundamentals. We don’t DEVELOP PLAYERS.
It isn’t too hard for a travel baseball team’s coach to acquire the information needed to teach these things to their players. There are many who reach out to the high school, college and professional coach. There are many more who think they know all there is to know and don’t seek information to not only better themselves but learn things to better the players that play for them. That is sad and it’s the truth.
Other reasons travel ball, in my opinion, is not the best option is because of the controlling coaches whose main goal is winning tournaments and patting themselves on the back for being the next Billy Martin. It is important to win—don’t get me wrong—but not at the expense of opportunities to develop players and, more importantly, helping the kids learn to like or love the game more than they did at the beginning of the season. The coaches that call pitches, pigeonhole kids to certain positions at too early of an age, never let the kids make decisions on the bases, positioning players every hitter, etc. These things stunt the player’s development or growth, if you will.
How are the kids ever going to learn and develop unless they are allowed to make mistakes? Their knowledge of the game and how it is played will not be enhanced if they only play one position the entire year. There are many things to learn from failing, losing, making errors, missing the cutoff man, giving up home runs, looking at strike three with the game on the line and walking hitters. Far too often, these times are not taken advantage of as learning opportunities because the focus is on winning today!
Let me tell you about a few people who are great examples of not being world beaters as young players but flourished later as they developed. There are many people out there such as this.
Santo Luis – Santo played for us in the White Sox organization when I was a pitching coach in Kannapolis, NC (Low A ball). Santo was a big RHP from the Dominican Republic. He lived in Haiti part of his childhood and NEVER picked up a baseball till he was 16 years old. He signed professionally as an 18-year-old and played seven seasons in the minor leagues, topping out in AAA.
Sean Green – Sean is from Louisville, Ky. He played at Male High School, where he was drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays following his senior year but elected to play in college at the University of Louisville. Sean was drafted again after his Junior year at U of L by the Colorado Rockies and played professionally for 12 years, pitching in six of those 12 years. Sean didn’t make his high school baseball team his freshman year in high school.
Andy Benes – Andy was a RHP who played college baseball at the University of Evansville. He entered his freshman year throwing the baseball well below 90mph. He left after his junior year in 1988 as the overall No. 1 pick in the MLB draft, throwing his fastball in the mid- to upper-90s and touching 100mph on occasion. Andy went on to enjoy a 14 year Major League career. Pretty good for a soft tossing RHP out of high school.
A.J. Ellis – A.J. is from Lexington, Ky and played his high school baseball at Dunbar HS. Following his senior season, he had no place to play in college. I was coaching at Austin Peay State University and was given orders to go see this kid that might be able to catch a little bit. This was in mid-July, and school started in mid-August. To say it was little late in the game for A.J. is an understatement. I saw A.J. pitch and DH that day. We offered him an opportunity as a catcher and he started from day one of his freshman year. A.J. was drafted after his senior season at Austin Peay and not only made it to the big leagues but was a starting catcher for a championship contending team (the Los Angeles Dodgers).
Andy Tomberlin – This is my favorite story. Andy and I coached in the White Sox organization and we were on the same minor league staff for two seasons. Out of high school, Andy had no place to play college baseball. Zero options. So he went to a professional tryout camp held by the Atlanta Braves. Getting signed out of a camp like that was highly unlikely. Well, he gets signed as a LHP. He goes on to pitch for three seasons. He did ok but didn’t set the world on fire. It doesn’t work out as a pitcher so he tries the hardest conversion of all: pitcher to hitter—in pro ball, no less. Andy went on to make it to the major leagues and played parts of six seasons. That is very impressive but what is more impressive is that he made it platooning his way to the big leagues, meaning he was a left-handed hitter that played primarily against right-handed pitchers only. That is one crazy path and there should be a movie about it!
I wanted to give these examples to show you that baseball players develop at different stages in life. The determining factor in your child’s ability to play in high school, college or professionally will not be because he played “elite” travel baseball. It will have more to do with his opportunities to develop. Meaning, cutting kids to play on “select” or “elite” teams may discourage a kid from playing all together. He is certainly not going to develop if he is not playing at all. They will also not develop if they constantly hit ninth and play RF all summer. Let them play other positions. What is the worst thing that can happen? You might lose a game? Heaven forbid!
Things that make me scratch my head are: what do these summer travel teams get when they win a tourney anyway? $10K, $50K? What do they win? In most cases, a wooden trophy and a gigantic pat on the back from themselves. Big deal.
The backbone of youth sports should be to have fun! We can also provide opportunities to develop. We need to teach the kids what it is like to be a good teammate and understand what it is like to depend on your teammates just as they depend on you. It can teach accountability, create confidence. The kids can learn what working individually and as a team can accomplish. This can be one small piece of the child’s development in a small window of his life. We can send him on his way to become a productive citizen, good spouse, good parent and good person.
Our children’s growth from a baseball perspective is being stunted because we have to win a baseball tournament when we are nine years old. We have become terrified that we are not doing all we can for our child if we don’t become sheep and follow everyone else into a flawed youth sports system.
I do think I have a better idea or option but not sure egos and money can stay out of the way. But here we go. This concept can be done in various sports. For arguments sake, let’s use baseball.
This would be my option to travel baseball: Youth Developmental Instructional Leagues.
We ran this concept while I was coaching in college with great success, and more importantly, I ran a fall youth league like the one I am about to describe and the kids and parents loved it! It is also a great way to keep kids in their own community, which can bring us back to the days of kids playing for their hometown and/or community. What a sense of pride it could bring to small towns and suburbs around the country.
In baseball, it is actually quite easy and if I were a HS coach I would love for this to be done in my community as it would have a direct impact on the kids that would eventually play for me. In fact, if I were the HS coach I would run the league myself. We actually stole the idea from Birmingham Southern, I believe. I was coaching at Austin Peay State University at the time and we loved the format. If you were a college baseball coach in the late 90s there is a chance you are familiar with this format.
For arguments sake again, let’s say we are doing this for the player not yet in high school. You need an even number of teams. Let’s say eight teams in each age group. If you are lacking kids in an age group you at least need an even number of teams. Let’s say we have eight teams of 12 players. Each team plays three games per week. You need four instructors. It’s safe to say that there are at least four coaches in a high school program, so staffing the league should not be a problem.
The league could be six weeks long. There are two games Mon, Tue, Wed and Thur evenings. There are four games on Saturdays.
Below is a sample week: Small group instruction on weekdays only. Teams that play the first games on M, T, W and Thur would get small group instruction after their game. Teams that play the second game would get small group instruction 30 min after the first game begins.
|1 vs 2||5 vs 6||3 vs 2||7 vs 6||1 vs 5|
|3 vs 4||7 vs 8||4 vs 1||8 vs 5||3 vs 7|
|2 vs 6|
|4 vs 8|
- Eight team format; 12 players on a team.
- Cost: $150 per player. This could pay the staff for working and could also be a fundraiser for the program.
- Each team will play 3 games per week.
- Games will be played on Mon, Tue, Wed, Thur and Sat.
- With the eight team format there will be two games each weekday and four games on Saturdays. Games will have a 1 hour 45 min hard stop.
- Innings can be rolled over after 20-25 pitches to keep the game moving.
- Games are instructional in nature and can be stopped for instruction.
- There will be a running batting order to ensure everyone gets equal plate appearances Everyone will get small group instruction either before or after their game depending on their game time.
- The small group instruction will change each week and will be offered in three areas of the game (ie., pitching, hitting, fielding, catching, bunting, baserunning, holding runners, etc.)
- Before each game, the teams will practice a team fundamental for 20 minutes. Team Fundy examples are cuts/relays, bunt defense, 1st and 3rd defense (incl. 1st and 2nd), fly ball priority, team PFP, etc.
- High school players could run the game from the dugout and make sure players play positions they desire.
- The high school coaching staff could set up the pitching each week.
Below you will find the schedule we ran at Bellarmine University for our High School Summer Instructional League last summer. Our league was eight weeks with each team playing two times each week.
|Date||Teams||Game Time||SGI Time|
|June 8th||7 vs 8||3:30pm||5:30pm|
|June 9th||9 vs 10||3:30pm||5:25pm|
|5 vs 6||5:30pm||4:00pm|
|June 10th||4 vs 3||3:30pm||5:25pm|
|1 vs 2||5:30pm||4:00pm|
|June 15th||7 vs 3||4:00pm||6:00pm|
|June 16th||1 vs 6||3:30pm||5:25pm|
|2 vs 9||5:30pm||4:00pm|
|June 17th||5 vs 10||10:00am||11:55am|
|8 vs 4||12:00pm||10:30am|
|June 22nd||4 vs 5||10:00am||12:00pm|
|June 23rd||9 vs 8||3:30pm||5:25pm|
|10 vs 1||5:30pm||4:00pm|
|June 24th||3 vs 2||10:00am||11:55am|
|6 vs 7||12:00pm||10:30am|
|June 29th||9 vs 1||4:00pm||6:00pm|
|June 30th||3 vs 5||3:30pm||5:25pm|
|4 vs 7||5:30pm||4:00pm|
|July 1st||8 vs 6||10:00am||11:55am|
|10 vs 2||12:00pm||10:30am|
|July 6th||10 vs 7||10:00am||12:00pm|
|July 7th||6 vs 2||10:00am||None (games only)|
|8 vs 3||12:00pm||None (games only)|
|July 8th||4 vs 1||10:00am||None (games only)|
|5 vs 9||12:00pm||None (games only)|
|July 13th||5 vs 8||10:00am||12:00pm|
|July 14th||4 vs 10||10:00am||11:55am|
|2 vs 7||12:00pm||10:30am|
|July 15th||9 vs 6||10:00am||11:55am|
|1 vs 3||12:00pm||10:30am|
|July 20th||6 vs 4||10:00am||12:00pm|
|July 21st||7 vs 9||3:30pm||5:25pm|
|1 vs 5||5:30pm||4:00pm|
|July 22nd||10 vs 3||10:00am||11:55am|
|2 vs 8||12:00pm||10:30am|
|July 27th||3 vs 9||10:00am||12:00pm|
|July 28th||8 vs 1||10:00am||11:55am|
|6 vs 10||12:00pm||10:30am|
|July 29th||2 vs 4||10:00am||10:30am|
|7 vs 5||12:00pm||11:55am|
Week 1 – Small Group Instruction (SGI) could be pitching, catching & hitting
Week 2 – SGI – infield play, outfield play & hitting
Week 3 – SGI- holding runners, bunting & hitting
Week 4 – SGI - baserunning, footwork at 1B & hitting
Weeks 5 thru 8 mirror Weeks 1 thru 4 but touching on different topics within the given areas of instruction.
We also practiced a team fundamental with the two teams together prior to or after each game depending on the game time.
This format is less costly that travel baseball. No hotel, gas or food expenses, nor time away from other children and overall stress. The parents can sit back in a relaxed environment where their kids can have fun, learn and develop.
It is developmental in nature and winning is not the emphasis.
If more communities would embrace this format or a similar format, it would be far better for the kids in every way.
These are nothing more than my opinions but I feel they are at least educated opinions and I hope I have provoked some thought on the topic. Should you be a travel ball coach, please do not take offense. I don’t question the motives of the great majority of travel ball coaches. I do ask that you be open-minded to my concerns. I don’t have all of the answers but I do feel there is a better way than the current structure of the “travel baseball team”.
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