Opportunity, Demands Explode For Youth Players

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

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

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

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.