I’ve been a baseball coach for over twenty years. Most years, I coached a local team, an all-star team, and a travel team. So, I’m not biased one way or the other. I see the value in almost every level of baseball.
Today, there are many threats to baseball. The recent success of the Taney and Jackie Robinson Little League teams are exceptions to the rule; kids in the inner cities are not playing baseball like they used to with some notable exceptions. Another threat is the growing popularity of lacrosse. I, for one, live in a town where the number of lacrosse players (especially girls) that go on to play in college is simply amazing. Some that aren’t even high school Varsity starters end up playing in college! And, there is a feeling in the local baseball community that baseball and softball are second class citizens to the lacrosse programs, thus making lacrosse a very attractive option for the best local athletes.
Over the years that I’ve coached, there has been a declining number of players coming out for baseball in our community and that’s true all over most of the nation, I’m sure. That being said, more players are playing travel baseball than ever before.
Should You Play Local or Travel Baseball?
There was a time just ten years ago, when travel baseball was reserved for players who were college level players. No more. With the advent of baseball schools, more and more players are playing travel baseball. Some that didn’t make the Varsity team as juniors are playing travel. Some that sit on the bench on the freshman team are playing travel ball. Hence, there has been a considerable decline in the average level of talent playing travel ball. This has led to many mismatches in the games.
Want to play baseball in college? There is no doubt that you are going to get more exposure in weekend travel tournaments than you will in playing for your local team. Any local coach that tells you anything different isn’t telling the truth. Why would a college coach come to your local game to see one player when he could go to a travel tournament and see a dozen players he’s interested in?
But, should you completely ignore local baseball? I don’t think so. Here’s why.
Many 8th, 9th, and 10th graders want to play baseball in college. They aren’t 16 yet so they don’t drive a car and most don’t have girlfriends. Baseball is the most important thing in their lives. In a couple of years, however, life brings other options and the harsh realities of genetics and talent will likely sink in to most of these guys. They’ll stop growing at 5′ 9″. They won’t get any faster. Their talent will peak at age 15. They’ll develop arm trouble. A lot can happen.
Last year, I went back to my high school reunion. Naturally, a lot of the baseball players got together and talked about some of the old games we played in. Without the value of the internet having documented our games, there was a lot of controversy on who got that key hit or who made that costly error. I laughed so hard that my cheeks hurt the next day. What a great time.
Had I only played travel baseball (of course, it didn’t really exist back in the day), that fun may have never happened. Yes, I know things have changed. But, the fact is that no matter how close your travel baseball team is, you’ll likely never all get together after your playing days are over. Not true with your local high school friends.
The Best Scenario is Play Both Travel and Local Baseball
Lately, it has become increasingly common for baseball schools to offer year round programs. This is great for the development of the college bound player (so long as the pitchers get some months off), but it also often comes with paying the price of not allowing players to also play local baseball. The baseball schools are for profit organizations and travel teams are very lucrative. If they offer weeknight programs, they can charge more to the mostly wealthy suburban players’ families.
Now, I don’t think you should play local baseball after age 13 if you don’t have a solid local program. Playing in a house league, for example, is not going to help a top player very much. Neither will playing in a poor Little League or Babe Ruth program where you have to struggle through an intramural program, only to get the chance to join the more competitive travel programs. But, if you have a competitive local league, you should also play for it in my opinion.
That means that travel and local coaches need to compromise and get along. Local leagues should consider going to a strictly Monday through Thursday league to allow for travel players to play elsewhere Friday through Sunday. Travel coaches should understand that they need to make their players available to the local leagues for playoffs.
The goal of coaches should be to create the best possible high school baseball program and create players who are baseball fans for life. Players that will come back to the local community one day and coach the next generation of ball players.
That means playing both travel and local baseball.