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Opportunity, Demands Explode For Youth Players
By Alan Matthews
2005 Baseball For The Ages:
• The Top Players From Ages 12-25
• 2005 Youth Player Of The Year: Robert Stock
• New Landscape Benefits Scouting
The anticipation was over, the decision made. Marcus Lemon announced his college choice: Texas.
A seemingly endless summer—one that saw Marcus; his father, former major leaguer Chet; his mother Gigi; and seven-year-old sister Brianna caravan across the country (and even Mexico) hitting all the top showcases and high-profile tournaments—was officially over.
The family sat in the den of their suburban Orlando home and reflected on the past eight months. Beginning in February, the Lemons mapped out a schedule for Marcus with one thing in mind--making a name for himself. Marcus' acceptance of the two-time defending College World Series champion's partial scholarship offer marked the successful completion of the family's goal.
It's time to celebrate, and Chet calls for a night out at Marcus' favorite restaurant. "Wherever you want to go, it's your night," bellows Chet in a voice laden with pride and satisfaction.
But before Marcus could make a suggestion, Gigi interjects, proposing a home-cooked meal. "After all that time on the road, you see, it's an adventure, for us, to be at home and spend an evening together," she says.
"Marcus just smiled and said, 'Spaghetti!' "
The Lemon's aren't unlike thousands of families across the country that recognize their son's ambition to play baseball beyond high school, and do everything in their power to help facilitate it. But with a big leaguer for a father, Marcus had an advantage over many of his peers. His dad had all the necessary insight and wherewithal, the insider's perspective on the best way to develop Marcus' skills while marketing those skills to colleges and major league organizations.
Times have changed dramatically in the world of youth baseball since Chet Lemon was an amateur player himself growing up in Los Angeles and was drafted in the first round of the 1972 draft by Oakland. His experience was entirely different from the way his son has pursued the same goal.
"It's a whole new ball game from what is used to be," Chet says. "Coming up as a teenager, we just never had an opportunity to come together with that many players from all over. There was no arena to allow us to do that as amateurs."
The arena--the sphere of competition and exposure--for today's amateurs has changed as drastically as the arenas in which those competitions are held. While the game's fundamentals remain much the same as they were 10, 20, even 50 years ago, how youth and high school-age players are developing the tools to perform those fundamentals have become profoundly complex.
Although the Lemons didn't write the manual on how to get their son signed by a major Division I college program, they came equipped with all the prerequisites. Parents have pushed the revolution in how today's teenage players chase their dream of playing beyond high school, doing—and spending--all they can to put their sons in position to accomplish that goal.
School-affiliated, summer and fall baseball schedules have evolved over the last two decades into rigorous tests of endurance.
Gone are the days of 12-15-game junior high and high school seasons, as well as an abbreviated summer schedule of American Legion games or some other form of local recreation league activity. For younger players, the options were equally limited. If their Little League or Babe Ruth team was eliminated from tournament competition, they often faced a summer of inactivity. There were no travel teams, no showcase events.
But since the late 1980s, when the specialization of training for individual sports began gaining popularity and powerful travel teams sanctioned by AAU and other national organizations sprung up, the culture of youth and high school baseball has taken on a new face.
High school baseball is less impacted by the rising popularity of youth baseball, but most high schools are playing significantly more games than a generation ago—where their state association allow it.
Throughout the Sun Belt, high school practices typically begin in February, and the schools that make a run deep into their state playoffs could still be playing beyond June 1. Not to be left in the cold of high school baseball's blizzard, programs well north of the Mason-Dixon Line are loading up their schedules with five-game, three-day tournaments and weekend doubleheaders.
Summer league seasons are even more intense, with top players choosing to participate with multiple teams, sometimes located in different states, to whet their appetite for competition.
"Whether it's showcases or regional travel ball, we're seeing the dynamic that has taken over baseball in last 10-15 years and it's much more of a national or regional competition," Indians scouting director John Mirabelli says. "There is just not any local or team connection to the community, now. And I don't know, is that good or bad."
These days, there are approximately 35,000 teams for players from 8 to 18 that play predominantly outside of the community the players come from. The number of those clubs has increased 300 percent since 1990, when roughly 9,000 travel teams existed.
Cooperstown Dreamspark, with a sprawling youth complex just outside Cooperstown, N.Y., embodies the popularity of youth baseball. It stages 11 weekly tournaments for 12-and-under players each summer, culminating with a National Tournament of Champions. The demand from teams all over the country to participate is so high that the number of teams each will will increase next year from 80 to 96.
Conversely, participation in American Legion baseball--once the gold standard for competitive, well-coached summer leagues and in its 80th year of existence--still has 5,500 teams, according to American Legion national program coordinator Jim Quinlan. American Legion is unlike most of the other 23 national organizations that conduct tournaments for teenage players in that it focuses on fostering community values and building teams of players from mostly the same geographic area. Generally, a Legion team can draw players from no more than four high schools.
Thousands of other travel teams that advance into the final stages of regional and national tournaments will play upwards of 70 games in their spring, summer and fall schedules, doing so with players who can distinguish their teammates at times only by a jersey number or position, rather than their first name.
Chet Lemon sees both sides, as he operates Florida's largest AAU chapter, is also the head coach at Eustis (Fla.) High and has his own travel league team, the Juice. "Marcus has averaged in the last four years probably 125 to 130 games per year,” Lemon says. “And that's probably on the modest side."
While most of the Juice players have embraced Chet's influence of playing with passion and respect, he acknowledges the challenge of getting a team of teenagers, already hungry for a shot at a big signing bonus or college scholarship, to play for the team instead of for themselves.
The Lemons’ summer featured a mixture of regional and national tournaments as well as appearances at national showcase events. Shortly after Marcus polished off his final exams, the family piled into their 2000 Chevy extended-cab pickup and hit the road.
• First stop, Baton Rouge, La., for the Juice’s first major summer tournament. Five days later, they went back home to Orlando.
• Next up: a tournament in Clemson, S.C., before Marcus squeezed in a showcase back in Orlando.
• A trip to Joplin, Mo., for USA Baseball’s Tournament of Stars was the first flight of the summer. Marcus played in the junior national team trials for 12 days before going home long enough to do laundry.
• One day later, he was off with the Juice for two weeks of tournament play in Marietta, Ga.
• The Juice went straight from Georgia to Fort Myers, Fla., for yet another tourney. The night the tournament concluded in Fort Myers, the Lemons got home at 1 a.m. and left four hours later, taking Marcus to the East Coast Showcase in Wilmington, N.C.
• After five days in Wilmington, where Marcus played through a cut that required 17 stitches in his leg, it was home for two days, and off to Long Beach for the Area Code Games.
• Following a four-day break, Marcus' next commitment was in Atlanta for a five-day trial series with the junior national team before the team--as well as Chet and Gigi--shoved off for Mexico, where Marcus helped Team USA capture a silver medal.
"We were traveling all over the place, it was crazy," Chet says. "It was worse than the big leagues because at least in the big leagues every thing was first class. I spent more time in the airport trying to get what we needed than I did traveling in the big leagues."
While teenagers' dreams of living the life of a major leaguer serve as the root of baseball's new culture, their parents' money is the revolution's foundation.
Gigi Lemon graduated from Michigan with a degree in computer science and worked at IBM before assuming a role alongside Chet with the AAU chapter. Her career as well as Chet’s big league career provided the financial foundation to fund the family’s baseball frenzy. Families of top youth players often spend in excess of $5,000-$10,000 annually on tournament fees, showcase events, equipment, air fare and private lessons and instruction.
"A (realistic college baseball) scholarship is approximately seven to nine thousand dollars, if you're lucky enough to get that," Chet says. "And for one event you can drop three of four thousand when you include the entry, hotel rooms . . . When it's all said and done, I have enough tuition for the kid's first semester paid for."
As parents wrestle with justification for the ever-rising costs of today's youth and high school baseball culture, scouts and college coaches are beginning to ask just how beneficial the new regimen is, at least for the masses.
Baseball is a game that requires exhaustive repetition to achieve success at its highest levels. Unceasing practice and games have become a constant and scouts and coaches agree that playing improves a player's skills. But they also agree in the law of diminishing returns.
When does it become too much?
"Exactly. When is enough, enough?" says Twins scouting director Mike Radcliff, who also serves on a committee formed to monitor and regulate practice and policy across youth and high school baseball. "As much as we want baseball players to play--the means to go about trying to improve their skills and abilities--it's the extra part of exposing yourself that has created a situation that maybe players are playing too much.
"Baseball players are supposed to learn the game and enjoy the game and improve the game.
“It's a situation we never thought we'd see."
There's no consensus on the dilemma, either. Chet says the player has to dictate his workload and contends the moment a parent or coach has to ask for participation is the point when it's time for a break. Marcus and his parents have fostered a line of communication that promotes frequent discussions and planning. Marcus' schoolwork is closely monitored by his parents, making sure baseball interferes with his education as little as possible.
But other families will readily retell stories of mental and physical fatigue, injuries from overworking muscles that are not fully developed, as well as plenty of cases where apathy sets in by the time players reach high school, undoubtedly precipitated by rigorous schedules during their youth careers.
Balancing all of this is challenging, and defined only by individual standards and thresholds. Those who discover the medium between academics, social and family development and baseball and successfully maintain that blend of influence throughout their adolescence are positioned to capitalize on their potential as high school upperclassmen. But too many parents get caught up in the thinking that their investment in their sons’ baseball career will be recouped with a draft signing bonus or college scholarship.
"Let's be honest, there are only a few hundred guys we're talking about that we're interested in seeing, that we're realistically considering going after," Radcliff says. "Ninety-nine percent of these guys have to realize that they aren't going to play pro ball, so you have to have balance.
"We don't think it's really fair for a parent to pony up the money to send a guy to (every major tournament and showcase across the country) to get their son seen . . . Let them play with their buddies in their last summer before they go play pro ball or go to college. Let them play on their Legion team and then go to (a couple of showcases) and that's enough."
Ultimately Marcus Lemon appears to have maximized his exposure, enjoyed his summer and retained his desire to play. There were sacrifices along the way, though he knew there would be.
One in particular this fall, though, was particularly difficult to stomach. While Marcus was in Athens, Ga., completing his list of official college visits over dinner with the Georgia coaching staff, his cell phone rang. That same night back home, Marcus' high school was holding homecoming ceremonies and Gigi received word that Marcus had been named homecoming king, though he was sharing baseball stories with college coaches 600 miles away.
"He didn't get to dance with the queen, but there's always the prom," Gigi says.
As long as she likes baseball.