In addition to writing our story on high school travel ball and showcases, P.K. Daniel is viewing things from the inside, as the parent of a 10-year-old boy and a member of a baseball-playing family. So we thought it would be useful to get her perspective of youth baseball not just as a writer, but as someone who is in the stands and trying to make good decisions for her child.
Bottom line: If you're good, you'll be found, regardless the path your baseball career follows.
That was the recurring theme repeated by former major leaguers, coaches and scouts as I researched the current baseball landscape of elite travel teams, expensive showcases and high-profile tournaments for the story I did for Baseball America.
Opinions varied about when a kid should start organized baseball, and whether participation in travel ball and showcases was necessary and/or worth the money. Baseball folks, like former major leaguer Bill Ripken, talked about the benefit of playing multiple sports rather than specializing. He also spoke of the abundance of disillusioned parents and unscrupulous organizations that prey on them. Of course, I also heard from many parents who talked about the value of their investment.
I, too, am a parent of a youth baseball player. Besides being a longtime sports journalist, including having covered everything from the BBCOR metal bat issue as it unfolded at the high school level to Perfect Game's All-America Classic at Petco Park, I married into a baseball family. My father-in-law played semi-pro ball in Texas in the 1950s and participated in one the earliest Pan American Games. My husband, Phillip Gonzales, played baseball for UCLA and the Mets organization. His brother, Rene Gonzales, played in the majors for 13 years, including time with Orioles during the era of Hall of Famers Eddie Murray and Cal Ripken.
Both Gonzales brothers have coached baseball at many levels. Besides coaching his younger brother, Phillip instructed eventual major leaguers Randy Johnson, Darryl Strawberry, Eric Davis, Matt Young, Rod Booker, Marshall and Mike Edwards, and others during their days with the Pasadena Red Birds, a team that has hosted both professional and amateur talent at Jackie Robinson Field for nearly five decades. After Rene's playing days, he managed in the Brewers organization, and he currently works with former major leaguer Bret Barberie, who owns a private baseball facility north of Los Angeles in Santa Clarita. The two are also part of Elite Nine, which partners with former major league players to provide instruction through private lessons, camps and clinics.
I grew up in Maryland and became an Orioles fan in the 1970s, so my 10-year-old son is named Camden Brooks Daniel-Gonzales. It was obvious from an early age that the athletic genes had extended to Camden. We signed him up for soccer and basketball. He was even in an invitation-only boys gymnastics program. But when it came time to register for tee ball, I met resistance. The Gonzales boys didn't start playing baseball until they were 9, and the thought of watching 4- and 5-year-olds chase squirrels or pick dandelions in the outfield or draw in the infield dirt was, in their estimation, a waste of time.
"I remember the day you called me and I said, 'No, leave him in gymnastics or do other stuff,' " Rene Gonzales said.
Ripken agreed. He doesn't see any benefits to introducing organized baseball to those as young as 6. "I think it's more beneficial to be in the backyard and spend 15 quality minutes throwing the ball to him than to be in a group setting," he said.
We held off for a year, one decision in a long list of them we have faced and will continue to face after entering the world of youth baseball five years ago. Despite my love of baseball, I've become somewhat jaded about youth sports. We left one Pony League for another because of the drama and politics. We've become familiar with the term "daddy ball”–when the coach is a father to one of the players and gives his child preferential treatment. We've observed the decimation of a rec league thanks to a few people who decided to recruit enough players to form a travel ball team.
"There are an awful lot of teams nowadays that just travel around and play tournaments," said Ripken, who runs Ripken Baseball with his brother Cal and is in the tournament business, among other things. "What has happened in the transformation of the game is that the really traditional rec program, I have to believe is taking a big hit and their attendance is going down."
We've already heard the rumblings about needing to play for the travel team that feeds into the high school in order to be selected to that high school team. We've learned that some travel teams use that sales pitch as a means to procure business independent of the high school coach.
"Parents try to position themselves with feeder teams or donate money to the schools," Barberie said. "All of that comes down to the integrity of the coach."
Our son plays rec ball with San Diego's Tecolote Youth Baseball, considered one of the most competitive leagues in Southern California. The Tecolote Pony All-Stars advanced to the World Series in 2005 after earning district, region, section and zone banners. In 1991, the Tecolote Mustang All-Stars won the Pony World Series. Former major league player and manager Bob Geren played his youth baseball at Tecolote.
Camden will be starting his third season with the San Diego Komets this summer. It's a good travel team, mostly made up of Tecolote all-stars. However, I wouldn't describe it as elite. And really, does a 10-year-old need to be on an elite team? Most of these boys play multiple sports: basketball, football, soccer. They're kids. They're friends. They play pickle after games. We'll worry about joining an elite travel team down the road.
Parents around Tecolote are starting to recognize the Komets helmets during the rec season. There's now a waiting list to join the team. The monthly fees are only $60. Other teams in Southern California charge as much as three or four times this amount. Barberie runs an elite 12-year-old travel team called the Santa Clarita Hawks. He charges $200 per month. That doesn't include uniforms, tournament fees or travel costs.
While the Komets have enjoyed their share of tournament titles, they don’t often travel beyond the outskirts of San Diego. And from what we have seen so far, the tournaments and facilities often feature high prices, with one charging admission to the players and coaches participating in the tournament, on top of the team registration fees.
Many tournament organizers advertise "national" tournaments in faraway places to parents of children as young as 8, but national is a relative term when you consider there are dozens of these types of tournaments held throughout the country and throughout the year by multiple organizations. But parents buy into it.
"I don't understand it," Rene Gonzales said.
"I think that's too young," Barberie said.
Some parents also buy into private hitting and pitching lessons, and speed and agility training with the hope that their child will become the next Derek Jeter or Bryce Harper. Again, experts wonder if some are throwing their money away.
"Money can't buy talent," Barberie said. "You can get better, but the tools of the game are real hard to change. Speed; you can get a little bit faster. How hard somebody throws; you can get a little more velocity. But talent is talent."
In reality, the odds of playing high school ball, let alone at any level beyond that, are long. But sometimes it's hard to see beyond your own child. Rene Gonzales said he sees a lot of that in parents. "They're very unrealistic," he said.
My husband and I have discussed the future many times. We have no false expectations. We realize Camden could lose interest in baseball. He could get hurt. He may grow to be 5-foot-9, like his dad, instead of 6-foot-4, like his uncle. Or, he could be just like the majority of boys whose baseball careers end before high school. And that's OK.
Camden is fortunate to have had a knowledgeable dad as a coach. He's also been able to attend his uncle and Barberie's baseball camp every summer. But how many people do their homework and check out the backgrounds of everyone they give their money–and children–to?
"Not many people look at the credentials of the people they're paying money to get 'professional' help from," Barberie said. "I'm not saying you had to have played in the major leagues."
It's also prudent to understand your child's limitations. A reminder to enjoy the now is a sign posted on a suburban Chicago youth ballpark fence: "Of the hundreds of thousands of children who have ever played youth sports in Buffalo Grove, very few have gone on to play professionally. It is highly unlikely that any college recruiters or professional scouts are watching these games; so let's keep it all about having fun and being pressure-free."
We will continue to support Camden's development. We'll likely face additional decisions regarding teams, showcases and tournaments. But bottom line, if he sticks with baseball and is good enough, he'll be found, no matter what path he follows.