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?