A former professional baseball player who is chair of sports coaching at the United States Sports Academy says he is concerned about a “misguided” trend in youth baseball where young players across the country are leaving community leagues to join “travel teams” in search of more competitive play and college scholarships.
“There’s this belief that a travel team and a higher level of competitive play will propel a child to a higher place; I think that belief is misguided,” said Dr. Bret Simmermacher.
“If a young person is not on a travel baseball or basketball team, some parents feel like their kids are being left behind; I just don’t see that,” Simmermacher added. “If you are good enough to play at the next level, they will find you. When someone can do the basic fundamentals well, over and over, it shows on the field and recruiters will find you.”
Simmermacher, the Academy’s chair of sports coaching, played college baseball as a pitcher under Eddie Stanky at the University of South Alabama in Mobile, Ala., and at the University of West Florida (UWF) in Pensacola, Fla., before signing with the Seattle Mariners organization and playing for the Bellingham, Wash., Mariners, who won the Northwest League championship during his time on the team. He then coached a variety of sports at the high school and college levels in Ohio and New Mexico for more than two decades before joining the Academy faculty. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in health, leisure and sports/physical education from UWF and his Doctor of Sport Management degree from the Academy.
Simmermacher has written extensively on sports topics and about the growth of travel baseball, including for the Academy’s sports blog, The Sport Digest (www.thesportdigest.com).
Travel baseball has been around for a couple of decades, but its participation has grown rapidly in the last few years. For instance, in 2000 roughly a dozen teams participated in the All-American Wood Bat Classic travel ball tournament in Atlanta. Today the event has grown to 100 teams.
“I started teaching and coaching in 1990, and I remember having clinics for youth league coaches where we taught them the basic fundamentals we would like them to teach their kids,” he said. “Around 1995 or so I started to see the travel ball trend develop. It used to be there were travel teams here and there, but now youth sports are inundated with it.”
Travel baseball team and “showcase” tournaments have become a growing trend among players at the high school, middle school and even youth baseball levels. Travel teams – at virtually every age level – can find themselves playing tournaments in a different city, state, or region every weekend, with some tournaments costing hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars out of pocket for parents. Travel ball is not cheap, with participation fees averaging about $2,000 per player per year. Teams are often based on a region instead of a town, and because tournaments are usually in other towns, parents must spend money on travel costs, hotels and food. The travel model also includes other sports like softball, volleyball, soccer and basketball.
“More often than not, low income kids could be the best athletes around but they may not get the same opportunities because their parents can’t afford travel ball,” Simmermacher said. “If there is no quality city league in their town, those kids often don’t get to play.”
Simmermacher’s ideas are in line with those from Little League International President Stephen D. Keener, who wrote at LittleLeague.org that while travel baseball is growing around the country, his organization remains dedicated to cultivating community baseball programs “where children from any walk of life can participate.” Little League participation peaked in 1997 at about 3 million children and has declined about 20 percent since then.
“I would love to see youth baseball get back in the local communities to help develop the community and school spirit there once was,” Simmermacher said. “If a player is good enough the recruiters and professional scouts will find them. You don’t have to travel all over the country to be seen.
“Some of the best times of my youth were played on the local Little League field in my hometown with my friends from the community.
“Not everybody is going to be a superstar,” Simmermacher said. “People need to look at the statistics. Very few players go from youth ball to high school ball, from high school ball to college and then from college to the professional level.”
According to Little League stats, fewer than 10 percent of youth baseball players will play high school baseball. Only 6.7 percent of high school senior players go on to play NCAA baseball. Of those in college, only 9.7 percent will play professionally at any level.
Some travel ball organizations contend that they do increase the chances of players making the college and pro ranks. Simmermacher counters that most of the players would have succeeded anyway.
“Those are the absolute best of the best,” Simmermacher said. “That’s your Ken Griffey Jr.’s, that’s your guys like Mike Trout. I believe those kinds of players would be in the draft anyway, no matter where they played. If you are good enough, the scouts and people will find you.”
Simmermacher said following the travel ball model can also lead to sport specific injuries due to overuse, especially if parents put too much pressure on their children to travel, compete and perform like adults. He said one athlete he recruited to college suffered an injury to his throwing arm, which he believes happened because he threw too much starting at a young age.
“I think it might have been because of the wear and tear he had from playing so much baseball, starting at age 9,” he said. “He played in the city league, he played on a travel team, he played for his high school, he pitched in college and then in the minors. But he blew out his elbow and never was the same.”
Simmermacher is also concerned that the travel model discourages athletes from playing multiple sports, when parents and coaches pressure children to specialize in one sport in order to get a college scholarship. He hopes that trend dies as more and more professional athletes reveal they played multiple sports growing up. Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones played basketball and football and was on the track and field team in high school. Others, like Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston played football and baseball.
“I think specialization will eventually die down,” Simmermacher said. “I know not all coaches agree with me, but I think playing more than one sport shows college coaches that you have athletic ability and it gives you a chance to be a kid.
“Kids aren’t allowed to be kids anymore,” Simmermacher said. “People tell them from all different directions that they have to pick one sport or they have to play travel ball if they want to get a scholarship, and I don’t think that’s true.”
The United States Sports Academy is an independent, non-profit, accredited, special mission sports university created to serve the nation and world with programs in instruction, research and service. The role of the Academy is to prepare men and women for careers in the profession of sports.
The Academy is based in Daphne, Ala. For more information, call (251) 626-3303 or visit www.ussa.edu.
By Eric Mann
Eric Mann is the Communications Assistant at the United States Sports Academy.