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Normally in this space I discuss professional baseball, breaking down the game in about any form or fashion. Without a doubt I am a ‘seamhead’, as everything about the game encompasses my life for the entire twelve months of the year. As much as I love baseball, I have a firm grasp of the bigger picture, which is that at the end of the day it is still “just a game”. With that being said, I have become increasingly disappointed with many of my fellow adults who can’t separate the level of importance for sports, most notably when it comes to our children playing these sports.

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Traveling youth baseball squads have become all the rage in youth sports and it can start as young as 9 years old. Traveling squads have become year round for many areas and have taken a bite out of local community baseball leagues. Some of these teams can play up to 120 games a year, which is more than most minor league teams play. There are many facets of this that bother me, none more than the cost for these leagues. So if you want your kid in a traveling league, what will it cost you? From the Washington Post in 2014:

Travel ball, by contrast, is not cheap — participation fees average about $2,000 per player per year. And teams may invite players from anywhere in the region. Since tournaments and games are usually in other towns, players and their parents must spend many hours commuting.

The cost is a bigger issue than just what appears on the surface. One of the issues that plagues Major League Baseball is the lack of African-Americans playing baseball today. In 2016, only 8% of the opening-day rosters were of African American descent, which is miniscule in comparison with the mid-1970’s, when 27% of major league players were African American. Traveling squads can be an issue for many inner city youths, as can be attested by former National League MVP Andrew McCutchen. Back in 2015, McCutchen talked about how his parents could not afford for him to be on a traveling team when he was a kid, which would lessen his chances of a scout seeing him perform. McCutchen talked about how the money just adds up after awhile:

But all the scraping and saving in the world wasn’t going to be enough for my family to send me an hour north to Lakeland every weekend to play against the best competition. That’s the challenge for families today. It’s not about the $100 bat. It’s about the $100-a-night motel room and the $30 gas money and the $300 tournament fee. There’s a huge financing gap to get a child to that next level where they might be seen.

McCutchen was lucky, as an AAU coach saw him play and when he found out that Andrew’s family could not afford the squad, Jimmy Rutland paid for him to be on the team:

My dad told him that it was just too expensive, and coach Rutland basically took me in as if I was another one of his sons. He helped pay for my jerseys and living expenses. My parents took care of what they could, which was basically just money for food.

This is just one issue hitting low-income families, who can’t afford for their child to play on these teams. But it is just one issue that is on the table.

Photo by Jon L. Hendricks

Another issue at hand is the effect this has on these players bodies. If you want to point at a big factor in the abundance of arm injuries in baseball these days, look at how kids are treated when it comes to pitch counts. Jeff Passan wrote a great piece for Yahoo Sports back in June (a piece I am going to recommend you read; just click on that link) about how a high school Junior was allowed to throw 157 pitches in a game for them back in the spring. Let me put this another way: a youth whose body is still developing was allowed to throw more pitches in a game than even a major league pitcher does:

Because Colby Pechin isn’t unique, and overuse in all forms – high single-game pitch counts, throwing multiple times the same day, too many pitches clustered among multiple days, playing competitively year round – pervades the youth-baseball landscape. This is the worst time of the year for it, with high school teams trying to stay alive and universities aiming for the College World Series. Previously the headquarters of arm abuse, professional baseball is today far and away the safest place for a pitcher.

If you aren’t alarmed yet, read on:

A 2015 paper in “The American Journal of Orthopaedics” found 56.8 percent of Tommy John surgeries between 2007 and 2011 were on 15- to 19-year-olds, and doctors say that number is bound to rise in coming years.

Now think about this: would you want your child to play on a year-round team if that high risk of Tommy John Surgery could be looming in their future?

One of the most resonant messages of the silly season came from an Illinois man named Thomas Blamey. In a Facebook post that has been shared more than 70,000 times, Blamey wrote what amounted to a public apology to his 17-year-old son Matt: “After I stopped being Matt’s coach at age 14, I allowed coaches to over use him. I take the blame. I knew his pitch counts like my own SSN. And because I didn’t want to embarrass him or have his coaches think I’m a crazy dad, I let him throw until the coach decided to pull him. And often times that was after the game ended. Here is what can happen.”

All this for what? The likelihood your child is going to play even college ball is slim, let alone playing professionally. So why are parents so gung-ho on having their kids be a part of a traveling team? Unfortunately, there is a selfish response to this question.

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Now before we go into the factors that might be at play, I want to stress that I believe most parents believe they are being supportive of their kids and truly just want them to exceed past the level they accomplished. Unfortunately, many times it does not play out that way. Just in the short span I have attended games in which my son is involved, I have seen a number of different parents at these games. The ones that concern me are the super-competitive ones. They normally played sports themselves and probably have pushed their kid into playing as well. Hey, nothing wrong with that as long as you let them go out and play. But certain parents don’t stop there, as they are the ones constantly pushing their child, never being satisfied with how they perform. I’ve often referred to them as the ‘Al Bundy’s’ of the parenting world. Most were star athletes in high school and never accomplished more than that, athletically and in life. These parents are some of the worst because they are past the point of realizing it is just a game, and believe they know better than any coach or official that is in their child’s presence. There is also the parent that loves the social aspect of their kid playing at a higher level of athletics. This gives them a chance to be in a social group or club, all while acting like they are special because their child is on this team. Like the parents before, they focus on themselves quite a bit in these situations and less on the child’s level of interest in the sport or why they are playing. In many ways, parents are the biggest problem with youth athletics in this modern age. I for one can say I have seen my fair share of improper behavior by parents and am disgusted every time I see it.Once again, there needs to be some perspective here, most notably that your kid will more than likely never play baseball or any other sport past high school.

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Not all parents are this way but it is always the bad seeds that you remember when it is all said and done. I have loved the fact that my son has wanted to participate in athletics over the years but we’ve started seeing a shift in how much he wants to play. He’s entered high school and played football this past season, mainly on the junior varsity squad. He initially wanted to quit early in the season, but we talked him into staying in, mainly because we wanted him to hold up his commitment. When he was talking about quitting, one of the phrases he uttered to me was “…they just take it way too serious. I want to play, but I want to just go out and have fun.” It is very obvious that he enjoys the social aspect of sports but you probably won’t find him putting in extra work for it. He is just not competitive in that manner and we haven’t pushed him to be. You wonder how some of the kids who are pushed would feel if their parents sat down with them and discussed what they really wanted to do.

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By no means am I saying kids shouldn’t be competitive or want to push themselves harder to win. I believe being involved in sports has had a positive effect on my son and I’m glad he has at least gone out and attempted to see what he can do. But I also feel like there needs to be more regulations and maybe a lesser focus on traveling squads. When you really sit down and think about it, if you have your kid participating in a traveling team, they have a certain set number of hours they have to set aside each week for practice and/or games. Add in school and you factor in time spent at school, school activities and homework. If your kid is also in high school, throw in a social life and possibly even dating. Then…remember how you were as a teenager. Those teenage years are some of the hardest years of your life, as everything is changing and changing on a constant basis. So you want to toss in the pressure of being on a traveling team and everything that involves? I know I couldn’t have handled that as a kid and it feels like a lot to throw at these still developing humans. Keep your kids in sports and encourage them to work their hardest. Teach them the wrongs and rights and playing these games that are a fun getaway from reality. But also teach them that it is just a game and just a small piece of a much bigger picture. I always tell my son I have just two rules when he plays: try your hardest and have fun. Asking anything more of them just feels like you are trying to accomplish something for your own cause.

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