Outfielder Tyler Allen is going to his dream school, Virginia, to play baseball next fall, with a scholarship. That’s not typical for high school players, nor is how he got there.
The decorated high school senior batted .614 as a sophomore, made two errors his first three seasons, led his team in home runs since his freshman year and has been named all-state every year. He led Powhatan (Va.) High to a state championship last year.
Allen may have gotten noticed in the small farming community of Powhatan, located west of Richmond, based on his high school feats alone. After all, he’s the kind of discovery a scout scours for.
However, following an ever-growing trend of players looking for more exposure, Allen joined a high-level travel team, the Virginia Cardinals, that did well in big tournaments in front of pro and college scouts.
According to Little League stats, fewer than 10 percent of all youth baseball players will even play high school baseball, let alone college or pro ball. Only 6.7 percent of high school seniors go on to play NCAA baseball—all divisions. Of that elite group, 9.7 percent will play professional ball at any level. Fewer than 1 percent of high school players will be drafted.
But for those in high school who are talented and hope to reach the next level, whether that’s college or pro ball, showcases and travel ball have become an essential part of the process. Selecting the right ones, which can cost $800 a pop, is important, too. Players are encouraged to play in particular regional showcases to be considered for prestigious national ones.
What was once a relatively straightforward process of playing high school baseball in the spring and American Legion ball in the summer has now become much more complicated—and expensive.
The tournament and showcase season starts as early as May and accelerates in June when school lets out, lasting until October. Travel teams can find themselves in a new city almost every week. Some programs have funding that can help alleviate the costs for players, but most families can easily fork over a few thousand dollars each summer.
Allen, whose parents divorced when he was young, lives with his father, a trash collector, and his stepmother, a third-grade teacher, and his two younger brothers. His mother works at Pizza Hut. He is the kind of young player that Astros scout Charles Aliano worries about falling through the proverbial cracks.
“(Some) kids aren’t getting the opportunity just to play the game because it’s becoming so competitive financially,” Aliano said. “I see fewer minorities in the game. I think that has a lot to do with the ticket prices in regards to showcases, games and summer teams. It’s become more of a business.”
The change to baseball’s amateur development over the past decade has seen a proliferation of elite travel teams, high-priced showcases and year-round academies.
There are training facilities across the country that have travel teams for players who haven’t even started middle school. They will travel to local, regional and national tournaments, playing dozens of games every summer. Then there are events that invite individual players, mix them up on different teams and put them in front of scouts and college recruiters.
While most operations provide legitimate services, the explosion has created opportunities for people to exploit the system for profit.
Former major leaguer Bill Ripken—himself a participant in the industry with his brother Cal—attributes some of this to parents who are unwilling, or perhaps unable, to recognize their own children’s limitations. That creates a situation where they can be taken advantage of.
“I think in some cases there are some parents who are little bit disillusioned in the world of travel baseball,” said Ripken, who along with Cal runs Ripken Baseball, which hosts tournaments and runs camps. “I’ve had people come up to me and say ‘My kid is going to be the next Bryce Harper.’ Wow . . . You’re not only saying your kid is going to be a big leaguer. You’re saying your kid is going to be an all-star big leaguer. And he’s 10.”
The leader in this space is Perfect Game, a company based in Iowa. Perfect Game runs showcase events around the country, including three of the largest. Its National Showcase in Minneapolis in June, and World Wood Bat Championships in October in Jupiter, Fla., sandwich its All-America Classic at Petco Park in San Diego in August. Most of the top prospects selected for the All-America Classic attend PG National, which attracts every professional organization and most top college programs, or some other PG event.
“We have selected players in the past that have not attended a PG showcase,” Perfect Game president Jerry Ford said. “We are a scouting service. We start following talented kids as early as 13 or 14 years old. Our only goal is to have the very best players at the All-American Classic.”
Ford said nearly every first-round pick in the past 10 years has attended a PG event. And he estimated about 80 percent of all draft picks have attended one. Ford is concerned, however, about parents who are not getting their money’s worth—whether at one of his events or someone else’s.
“We know people spend lots of money doing all these things,” Ford said. “Some of these people might not be able to afford the money they are spending. If your son is talented, you will be very happy you went to the event . . . If your son has no talent, you will be throwing your money out the window.”
Perfect Game has been so successful in the showcase business that it has outgrown its Iowa roots. The company is set to move to Georgia with its involvement in LakePoint, a massive development northwest of Atlanta that will include 16 baseball fields.
Showcases make sense for the upper-echelon player. And they make sense for colleges, which have limited recruiting budgets. But Aliano, who is based in Tampa, described a glut of recruiting events there. So experts say it’s a must for parents and players to do their homework.
“There’s always somebody popping up with a new one trying to make money,” he said.
Showcases such as Team One started picking up steam in the mid-1990s. Before Perfect Game came on the scene and other scouting services like Baseball Factory, which runs the Under Armour All-America Game at Wrigley Field, entered the fray, the go-to event was the Area Code Games, established in 1987 by Bob Williams.
Players are invited based on recommendations from professional scouts to try out for regional major league scout teams. The best are invited to the Area Code Games at Blair Field in Long Beach, Calif., in August. There is no fee to participate and hundreds of pro and college scouts are in attendance. The East Coast Pro Showcase, which now calls Syracuse, N.Y., home, essentially runs on the same model.
“We never charged the kids,” said Williams, who sold the Area Code Games in 2004 to Student Sports. “And when we sold the games to Student Sports, it was in my contract they were never to charge.”
Williams added there are alternatives to the big money events that can still get players noticed: Join a decent, but reasonably priced summer team. Contact college coaches and let them know where you’ll be playing. Attend pro camps; they don’t charge. Attend college camps, whose fees are significantly less than showcases.
Still, it’s hard for players to ignore the showcase and travel ball circuit when they see all of their peers doing it. Players like Allen watch their families struggle to pay the costs for travel ball, and Allen estimated his family paid thousands of dollars in just a couple of years.
“It was a hassle,” Allen said. “It is crazy expensive.”
Enter Rich Graham, a coach who previously had a for-profit travel team, and the Virginia Cardinals. The Cardinals are a fully funded travel team, meaning the players on the team pay little or nothing to participate. Graham said he created the program to counter the influence of finances in the process.
“I found the money element was a bit of a corrupting element,” he said. “You weren’t always getting the most worthy players because some of the most worthy players just can’t afford it.”
And vice versa. Some players are on travel teams because they can afford it. Graham’s business model is still the exception rather than the rule, however, because not unlike other club sports, baseball has become big business.
Graham was able to establish the Virginia Cardinals in 2010, when a former student’s parents offered him $100,000 to start up a team. Players pay no uniform costs, no tournament or monthly fees, no transportation or hotel bills. Besides getting instruction on the field, they also learn how to conduct themselves off it.
Graham played professional baseball for seven seasons before opening Richmond Baseball Academy South. Graham, who is also an associate scout with the Royals, gave Allen free lessons, something that otherwise might have been out of reach for his working-class family.
Allen also found someone who would be a mentor and his path to a college baseball scholarship.
“We just connected instantly,” said the 6-foot-1, 190-pound Allen, who carries a 3.7 GPA and wants to study radiology at UVa. “I turn to Rich for just about everything—about baseball, school and pros. He’s gone through it.”
Graham became Allen’s safety net. Allen is the kind of player Graham had in mind specifically, and others like him generally, when he started the Virginia Cardinals.
“The sport has gravitated to being more of an upper-middle-class sport,” Graham said. “What I’m sensitive to is the lower-middle-class kid, and even the below lower-middle-class kid, and making sure they get opportunities.”
The opportunities afforded Allen include participating with the Royals scout team in last fall’s Perfect Game World Wood Bat Championship. The Cardinals, who travel up and down the East Coast, competed in the Perfect Game East Cobb Invitational in Marietta, Ga., as well as the Triple Crown Sports U.S. Baseball Championship in 2012 in Richmond, which they won.
But more important to Graham is the team’s success off the field. The organization has counseled players and parents on the college recruiting process and sent graduates on to college, with most playing in Division I programs. Another future Cavalier is Cardinals pitcher Derek Casey, who started turning heads at PG’s Junior National Showcase last June in Minneapolis with his 90 mph fastball.
Graham gets a small percentage of his money from local businesses and other sources. But primarily, the team is dependent on alumni giving back, and Graham said right now he has only enough money to get through this summer.
“I don’t charge a fee, but it’s not free,” he said. “I do expect people to pay it forward. I will be coming to you and asking for donations after your dreams have come true.”
There are people like Ripken who say those dreams can come true without showcases and travel ball, that if you’re good enough, scouts and recruiters will find you—even if you just play high school baseball.
“If you play and you’re doing well at the high school level, word gets out and you get noticed,” he said. “Now, does it hurt to go to (showcases)? Absolutely not, because there’s going to be more people and more concentrated eyeballs.”
Bottom line, no matter what direction a player chooses, the job of a major league or college scout is to find the talent. Ripken agreed.
“There are so many people out there looking for talent, and even if you’re not on the radar screen, somebody on that field that you’re playing against is and there will be a scout in attendance,” he said. “And there will be an interest piqued if somebody is actually worth their salt.”
With the odds so steep against getting drafted or even getting a college scholarship, though, players and parents can hardly be blamed for seeking every advantage.
If a player does get a Division I scholarship, it’s unlikely to be a full one because even fully funded programs have just 11.7 scholarships to be divided among an average of 34 players. There is only one full-ride athletic scholarship available for every 100 high school athletes.
Given the odds, Allen, who could also be drafted, knows he’s fortunate to have earned a full ride to UVa.
“It was probably the best baseball I’ve ever played in my life,” said Allen, whose scholarship is made up from both baseball and institutional aid. “It allowed me to step out of my area, play against the best and show my talents off to all the scouts. Me playing baseball in a small town like Powhatan, I probably would’ve never been seen. It’s made a big impact on my future. I don’t know what I’d be doing right now if I hadn’t played for the Virginia Cardinals.”
P.K. Daniel is a freelance writer based in San Diego.