Tuesday, November 20, 2012

A Case for Finishing Out Your Little League Days

The growing influence of travel ball has been discussed before on this site. You don't need to look far - just click on the Travel Ball search label in the right hand column - to find the perspectives of various people on specialization, elitism, burnout, etc.

But it seems that the tug from travel ball programs is becoming stronger than ever. And the problem is that it's starting earlier and earlier. Many travel teams are a business. They are in the business of relabeling your child - the same child that may still watch cartoons and play with Legos - as a Division I NCAA baseball prospect. To make enough money to support that business, the owner must sell his product. He will promise "better baseball" and make you feel special. He will impress you with fancy gear and tournament trips. And he may pressure you to buy in now, because if you don't fully commit to him now, his offer may not be there a few months down the road. He may even criticize his competition (like your son's own league) and present you with an ultimatum. These are of course major red flags that would make me turn and run the other way. After all, if he places no value on your son's own loyalty and commitment to his current situation, do you think he is going to be loyal to your son when a better player or opportunity comes along? Of course not.

Your travel ball coach may be very good at what he does. He may really offer a quality program and a good opportunity. He may even be that former professional baseball player that also happens to be a good coach. But what he won't tell you is that he needs you. Businesses need customers, and they want as many as they can get. So if you don't give in to his ultimatum and take the deal now - especially if your son is a good player - he will probably still take your son when he's ready. The offer will most likely still stand in a few months. Because he needs your talented ball player to represent his business... not to mention your money.

So while many travel ball programs indeed offer quality instruction and a great opportunity for your son, this is an argument for playing out your Little League days, before completely jumping ship to that travel team. I speak from experience. I have coached talented players - some that became Division I type talent. They played through their 12-year-old season. They had fun and learned their fundamentals in Little League, and then truly developed their talent between 13 and 18. And they always come back. They come back to the Little League park years down the road and soak up the community atmosphere as if it were the Fountain of Youth. They ask about the league, the teams, the fields. They want to help coach. They watch games. They tell stories from their playing days, especially that special 12-year-old season.

They have fond memories of that time in their lives. That was the last time they were just a kid playing a game. That was when they were the kings of the park - the big dogs. That was the last time that baseball was just fun, before they needed to "work" at their game and "develop" as a player. They would hang out at the park all day on Saturday with their baseball friends - the same guys they had been with since T-Ball... the same guys they would spend that last summer with, making the proverbial "run at Williamsport."

Why would you want throw that away? Why would you want your son to grow up so fast? I know I don't want that for my kids. My oldest is heading into his own 12-year-old year. He's a pretty good player. But even if he were Bryce Harper himself, I would absolutely want him to play out his Little League days. Because it is a life experience, not just a baseball experience. He is creating memories and building confidence that will stay with him forever. He loves being at the park. He loves his regular season and all-star teams and he is committed to them. The commitment and loyalty he has developed over the years is an important life lesson - more important than his development as a baseball player. "Better baseball" can wait. If he's that good, that "elite" team will gladly take him when he's done being a kid. And then no matter how far he goes in baseball, he will be another one that comes back, with fond memories of the days when the game was just fun.

I came back. My loyalty to the same regular season team for four years helped make me a better person. And then the thrill of representing my league in 12-year-old all-stars was the defining baseball moment of my life. I was hooked from that point on - as a player, a fan, and later a coach. The park would become a home away from home, and the league would always welcome me back with open arms. Without that special summer, everything would be different. I remember the feeling like it was yesterday. I remember my teammates. I remember the significance of representing Myers Park. After that, it's a blur until high school - the next time I would represent something special, something bigger than myself. So I came back, just like the others. And I don't want to leave. Why would you?


  1. Why would I? In a word, politics. Or under another name daddy ball. All of the values you mention are great and worthy. However, for many families they are overwhelmed by the cliques and the politics that dictates which boys get the 'right' coach or make the all-star team. Sadlyonly 12 boys get to make that run at Williamsport. Of theose most leagues have 4-5 who clearly chould be on the team and another 10-15 who could be. Sadly, the selection of the rest of that team all too often depends on which parents are best connectd with the coach. You see his start at 9u or evn yong "challenge" or "select" teams. I see far too many families who are not pulled away by travel teams, but instead feel that they were pushed away by a clique of parents in their little league. Like most things in youth sorts, it would be nearly ideal, if you could just take the parents out.

  2. We are certainly in agreement about taking the parents out. I coached my team for 10 years before my oldest could play on it. But in our league, that's the norm. The daddyball and politics are minimized starting at age 10. I think that is mainly because our Majors coaches are not dads. But I can only speak to our league. I know that's not so common.

  3. I too remember my little league days like it were yesterday, representing my league in all stars and my family driving me out 40 miles to the games. I went from playing on crappy fields to amazing ones with dugouts and water fountains in them. We didn't make it far but i was there with my team doing the best we could. So i do understand the saying to finish something you started, it instills loyalty for a lifetime....