Little League season is upon us and as a coach for my boys’ team, I’ve had something on my mind for quite some time. In keeping with my direct, no B.S. manner of speaking I’ll be blunt. Travel sports is a scam! Yes, you read that right, it’s an absolute scam and total ripoff! Don’t get me wrong I love coaching youth sports, especially getting to really shape, mold and make a difference in children’s lives, including my own boys. Let me clarify; I’m not digging on coaching or sports, just the concept of year-round travel sports for young children. I have a different take for high school aged kids and I’ll cover that later. If you’re a parent who has a child playing in sports, whether it’s baseball, soccer, tennis, you name it, it’s no longer seasonal anymore. Kids are expected to train 365 days per year instead of being able to have fun and play and just be kids–all in the name of money. It has become a racket, a dirty scheme.
I love sports, obviously. I’m a firm believer that children should play some form of team sports. Being part of a team brings out the best in kids. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. I’ve coached kids who walked onto the baseball field for the first time and couldn’t look me in my eye or let alone say one word to me. These kids had zero confidence. They had never played a team sport or picked up a baseball in their lives, but by the end of the season, I saw these kids significantly grow in confidence, athletic ability and even their ability to interact with others vastly improved. Sports teaches kids the concept of a team where they develop social skills, learn and understand failure, perseverance and how to win with dignity and humility. Some discover they’re leaders, they become independent and understand the true meaning of competition. I firmly believe that kids who participate in team youth sports in a healthy manner are equipped to become successful with some even destined to become our leaders of tomorrow.
However, over the last twenty years, I’ve seen an alarming trend in youth sports: year-round travel sports. It seems to me that the entire thing has become a system of monopolizing kids’ sports. It has become a huge business opportunity for many wannabe pro players to cash in on kids by taking advantage of parents’ desires for their children to become a pro athlete. These guys instill fear and doubt in parents. They tell them their kids will never get a shot at the pro ranks without their much-needed coaching and counsel. In reality it’s all just a ruse in order for these no talent hacks to make a cheap buck. Many of these coaches will sell you on how they were destined for the Big Leagues but a devastating injury kept them from their dream. In reality they may have been the back up right fielder on their high school baseball team. So in their attempt to hold onto a game that didn’t want them, or they were never good at in the first place, they found a way by making money coaching and scamming parents. It makes me want to blow chunks when I listen to the instruction from these travel ball coaches. Believe me, I’ve heard a bunch of stories from parents and kids alike about the poor instruction that these morons are giving.
I’m saddened when I see parents fall for this trap. We live in a society that screams perfection. There is undue pressure on kids that begins at a very early age. In order to get into a high-end college, you must start at a very young age getting straight A’s, playing sports, playing an instrument, belonging to all the right clubs and having as many extracurricular activities as possible. All with the expectation that by doing this your will score a first-class job making hundreds of thousands of dollars immediately upon graduation. ALL BULLSHIT! In many cases, these poor young men and women end up with crippling college debt which takes years if ever to rebound from. They start life already buried. I believe the traditional educational system is a broken and majorly flawed system screaming for reform, but that’s for another blog. The travel ball system is no different. It can be beneficial for high school aged and sometimes junior high kids, but the little ones, ages six to twelve, it’s the worst thing you can do for them. I’ve seen and heard stories about parents who spend thousands of dollars to get their kids on the best travel ball squad in their areas. I know a guy who coaches travel ball in Texas. Parents and their kids fly there from all over the country for the whole summer. They spend large amounts of money on travel, on their monthly rental home and the travel ball coach’s program that costs thousands of dollars. And he has many squads for kids 8-14. These parents honestly mean well, but are getting suckered into this travel ball scam with lofty promises of getting their child on the starting high school team, a division 1 scholarship, or even in front of area big league scouts. It’s all such bullshit. The odds of any kid becoming a Major League Baseball player is staggering low. Check out these stats:
- High school senior players who go on to play NCAA men’s baseball: Less than three in 50, or 5.6 percent
- NCAA senior players drafted by a Major League Baseball (MLB) team: Less than eleven in 100, or 10.5 percent.
- High school senior players eventually drafted by an MLB team: About one in 200, or 0.5 percent. Drafted baseball players almost always go to a minor league team. These teams abound; there are over 150 of them, compared to 30 in the majors. The big leagues have 750 players, yet the 2004 draft alone took 1,500. Hence some estimate that only one in 33 minor leaguers ever makes it to the pros. If that’s correct, the chance of a high school player making the big leagues is one in 6,600, or 0.015 percent. That’s slightly better than a thief guessing your PIN number on the first try, which is roughly one in a million.
I can’t tell you how many of my boys’ friends’ parents have called me and asked if their kid should play travel ball. These kids, in some cases, are only 8, 9, or 10. My answer is always a resounding NO! I had a conversation with a father about this travel ball subject just last year. He told me he had a freshman son on the high school baseball team and that the only way players were allowed to play for that particular high school was for the kid to have played year-round travel ball. Can you believe it, they made it mandatory! I wonder how many of those high school coaches got kickbacks or even coach travel ball themselves.
When I was a kid, Little League was a place where you could play on a team with all your friends from school. My mom would sign me up for fifty bucks which paid for the season. Our league would allow us to put together our own teams. There were no evaluations, no drafts, no recruiting; just a desire for fun, growth, learning, playing, and competing. I had so much fun playing with all my friends from school, even though some seasons we really sucked.
Now in today’s youth sports, we evaluate every child, we hold drafts, we judge these kids as little as six years old. I’ve been to many of these drafts over the last several years and it always entertains me. So many dads take this so seriously. You dads that are obsessive, ask yourself, “why?’ Did you not get to play because you weren’t good enough so you want to live vicariously through your kid, shoving your dreams down your kids’ throats? It’s gross to witness coaches who load up their eight to ten-year-old teams by recruiting the best athletes around the area. They then go undefeated for the season by dismantling the other teams every week. What are you teaching a team like this? They will never get better if they continue to prey on weaker teams. Once they get older and everyone else catches up with them they will be in for quite a shock. It certainly doesn’t teach humility or the love of the game. It only teaches a warped desire to win at all costs. Baseball is a game, let’s not forget that and kids want to have fun. The notions of destroying other teams or building dynasties aren’t what kids want or even know anything about. These are the sick desires of fetish parents, and coaches who never played the game themselves. Just ask many former or current pro-player, coaches and managers what they feel about youth travel sports and all the other antics like drafts and such that go on. They almost universally think it’s ridiculous and absurd that kids aren’t allowed to have fun anymore. Here’s a few examples of pros speaking out against travel sports.
Jered Weaver, former MLB pitcher, Tweeted on January 23:
My 5 year old son had tryouts for baseball the other day..tryouts??? aren’t you supposed to play w your friends and have fun at 5??? I hope he likes golf better.
Chicago Cubs World Series Championship manager Joe Maddon said:
I hate the specialization of kids when they’re on these travel squads that are only 12-13-14 years olds that are only dedicated to one thing, traveling all the time, paying exorbitant amounts of money to play baseball with hopes of becoming a professional baseball player. I think that’s crazy.
Doug Carpenter has more than thirty years of experience with professional baseball as a player, coach, and scout. He is now a scout with MLB’s Cleveland Indians. He absolutely echoes my every opinion on this subject in this brilliant take:
Let your child play all sports (football, basketball, soccer, etc.). It helps round out their overall athleticism. When the baseball season is over THROW the glove in the closet! You will be amazed at the passion shown when baseball season rolls around again. Can you make them better? Yes. Can you push them too hard? YES! There is a fine line between the two and unfortunately, most parents don’t know where that line is. Major League Baseball players are very blessed athletes and there is more than just “ability” involved. Makeup, instincts, fundamentals, and work ethics are just a few factors that also affect player upside/value. How many times do we hear, “Oh…that Bobby is gonna play in the Big Leagues.” Reality check: there are only 750 Major League player jobs available during the season. And if Bobby is a shortstop he has to be one of the BEST 30 IN THE WORLD or he is not going to be a Major Leaguer. I think it’s less than .001 percent of kids playing youth baseball get the chance to be a Major League Baseball player. Yes…a lot of kids get the opportunity to play in the Minor Leagues (I did so for 7 years) but unless you got a big bonus, as the band Boston once sang, “you barely make enough to survive. Bottom line: let your kids be kids. Let them enjoy all the sports. If they are meant to play pro ball…their natural ability will one day allow them the opportunity. I am a firm believer that Major League Baseball players aren’t made…they are born.
Washington Post columnist Fred Bowen remembers asking Cal Ripken, Jr. at what age he started playing baseball year-round:
When I signed a professional contract at 18.
The Hall of Famer told him. Ripken also happened to be an all-state soccer player in high school. Where do you think the shortstop’s legendary footwork comes from? And come to think of it, injuries never really seemed to be much of a thing for Cal, did they?
Speaking of injuries lets dive into the epidemic of Tommy John surgeries for so many young MLB pitchers. According to Wikipedia, in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s only fifty-two Major League pitchers had Tommy John Surgery. From 2000 to today that number has exploded with a staggering 307 players going under the knife. Travel baseball has been around for quite some time, but it didn’t become obsessive and now mandatory by some of the high school coaches until the mid to late 90’s. I think there might be a correlation between the rise of it and the birth of the self-esteem movement. Society now bombards and pressures parents into making sure their kids keep up to a level that is turning these kids into obsessive maniacs over a sport that more than likely they will never play as an adult. Then as if society’s pressures aren’t enough, you have the parent who has to live vicariously through their children. They couldn’t make it so they’ll burn their kid out doing something they couldn’t or even wouldn’t do, yet now think they should have. So you can see these shocking Tommy John numbers directly correlate to the increasing pressure of young kids pitching year round. These are real numbers, facts, and if you’re offended because you’re one of these parents or hack coaches, I don’t care. Facts don’t care about your feelings. A human arm isn’t designed to make that motion on a consistent basis. It’s imperative that the arm has an offseason to rest, and heal. If you insist on your child playing travel baseball I highly recommend he doesn’t pitch, and only plays a position. Because trust me, the majority of those coaches who are getting paid handsomely don’t give one shit about your kid’s arm. He only cares about wins, and dollars so he can pay the bills.
When I was in high school, I didn’t just play baseball, I also played basketball and tennis. I’ll admit now that I only played tennis to impress a girl who also played but after a season of tennis my footwork was better, it made me quicker and ready for the next season of baseball. As it pertained to baseball, I’ll also admit that I wasn’t the best player on my team. As a matter of fact I was a scrawny high school shortstop that hit .300 with only a single home run his senior season. These are hardly the stats of a future big leaguer. To expand on the irony of my high school years I want you to guess what you think I was better at, baseball or basketball? Well, it was the latter and I was good enough that I received a scholarship to attend a division 2 school in Kansas to play basketball. Needless, to say I didn’t take it. I could shoot but I was like Woody Harrelson in WHITE MEN CAN’T JUMP. Even with the other opportunities, I went with my passion and held a vision that I would be a Major Leaguer and ended up walking on at Vernon Regional Junior College in Texas. The rest is history.
Where travel sports can be beneficial for some is in their high school years. I didn’t need it, but some high schoolers can hone skills, etc. They’re old enough now to be making the choice themselves, it’s not some frothy parent or guilt shaming coach forcing it on their parent. So if you’re a high schooler and think it can be helpful, sure try it. I still recommend playing other sports to hone your skills as a baseball player will more than playing solely baseball itself. I realize this may sound weird but it’s the truth.
Something else that is happening to young kids because of year round travel ball is burnout. I have a personal experience in regards to this. My oldest son, Jayce now ten, showed great promise as a baseball player from ages six to eight. One particular season he was invited to play in a travel ball team, and I was asked if I would volunteer to coach. I was initially against it, but I asked Jayce if he really wanted to do it that I would do it with him. His answer was, “Yes.” Now mind you, we had just finished playing the spring Little League season which lasted a few months. With him adamant on playing travel ball, we went right into another three-four month season. The schedule had us at two practices a week, and usually a tournament every weekend. Midway through Jayce began to complain about not wanting to go and I’ll admit, I was getting tired of going. It was all consuming, every single weekend, there was no time for life. To make matters worse, Jayce was missing out on school work. He fell behind in math forcing me to hire a tutor. Then something happened, I still remember the day. We were supposed to go to practice and he was against it, I told him he had to and he said the magic words, “I hate it.” There it was, my boy who had loved baseball so much before, now despised it. I had made a tactical error by having him join at his age. It wasn’t the game that burned him out, it was the intense scheduling, the non-stop in your face competition, and I was to blame. Yes, he said he wanted to play, but come on, he was a kid, an eight-year-old, they don’t have the mental capacity to make these type of decisions. I had gone against my better judgement and let him play. I was heartbroken and pissed. I should have known better. I was an ex-athlete and pro who knew that travel ball is bullshit yet I let myself get hooked thinking that maybe…well don’t just let my years of being a pro convince you, let my own experience be a guide, don’t do it.
I’m a two-time World Series champion, played professionally for thirteen years, yet I never once played travel ball nor wanted to. Hell, my mom was a single working mother raising two kids. She couldn’t have afforded it even if I had begged her to. Trust me if your kid is good enough you don’t need travel ball. However, if you’re looking for a sure fire way to burn a kid out or you’re a hack, wanna-be coach or dad who always dreamed of playing but couldn’t cut it, then sure, sign your kid up for travel ball at six and take every ounce of joy away from the game for them. Turn them into another sad statistic, with a major overuse injury by the time they’re twenty. But there is another way, be an example, stop the madness, let your kids play a diversity of sports, let them play have fun and learn. Let them be kids! And if they show they have a real natural talent then nurture it without turning it into a damn job for you and the kid. Remember people, your kids only get to be kids for a short period of time. Allow them to relish in their youth, joy, and innocence. Don’t force them to grow up too fast. I promise you’ll regret it if you do.