Commentary | Travel ball has killed youth baseball at the local level

July 1, 2014 

The Piranhas baseball travel team won the USSSA championship and had three of its players -- Matthew Sullivan, Josh Lundy and Zack Weston -- selected to the 2013 all-star team. PROVIDED PHOTO

Travel baseball isn't the new kid on the block, but it certainly has made an impact in Manatee County this season.

And that is a bad thing.

In a nutshell, travel ball has killed youth baseball at the local level.

Look at the District 26 Little League All-Star Tournament. There are just two 11-12 year old teams competing, Buffalo Creek and Lakewood Ranch Little Leagues.

That's the Majors division, the division that can yield a trip to Williamsport, Pa., for the Little League World Series.

Heading there through the rigors of district, sectional, state and regional tournament action used to be the dream of every youth baseball player putting on their uniforms at the start of the spring season.

Perform at a high level in the spring, get chosen as an All-Star and begin the summer quest of making it to the World Series, where you potentially could miss the start of school and gain the incredible popularity as a team galvanizing your community.

Now?

Little League has conformed to travel ball standards in an effort to remain competitive.

Kids are playing so much baseball - year round - with all the facets

mainly found when you transition to the big field.

The arm strength, the nuances and other fundamental approaches aren't ingrained at the earlier age. Bodies aren't developed fully, and those fly balls that land over the fence for home runs go for fly outs at the next level.

But there are many travel ball teams. Too many to count.

Back in the 1990s when AAU started gaining traction, there were just a few around the area.

Because of that growing demand, Little League instituted the Intermediate Division last year. Bases are 70 feet apart, an additional 10 feet from the standard Little League dimensions, and the mound is 50 feet from home plate.

However, they're doing it on Little League sized fields, which means a base hit to right field has a decent chance of being a putout from the right fielder to the first baseman due to the extra 10 feet that the batter has to run to reach safely.

The creation is to keep more players in the Little League fold that spend all year traveling to play tournament baseball.

But is it necessary?

No.

So many local baseball players eventually found their way to the professional game without needing year-round travel ball as the developmental tool.

Little League is supposed to be fun, but the ever-increasing need for travel ball has led to more parent involvement, with dragging kids to games all year.

It takes away the joy of the game and more kids are suspectible to getting burned out on America's pasttime.

Tampa Bay Rays star Evan Longoria recently expressed his own displeasure with travel ball on former teammate Gabe Kapler's website.

"Instead of a bunch of kids getting together and being kids, baseball becomes a full-time job," Longoria wrote. "Some of these outfits play 120 or more games a year, more than some minor league teams. Parents are spending thousands of dollars a season, and their kids feel the pressure to perform. It doesn't take long to find the stories of coaches thrown out of games for arguing, parents fighting in the stands or kids having surgery because they played too many games and got hurt."

So the creation of the intermediate division, which has a World Series in California, last season has diluted the product.

Now there is an extra division, with less local teams competing for the Williamsport dream that comes with national television exposure on ESPN.

It's as if to say, 'Hey, we're going to appease everyone by giving everyone a trophy for participation.'

But at least there's two teams battling it out this year in the Majors division. Last season, Lakewood Ranch was the champion by default as no other leagues had a 11-12 year old team.

So, there is that. Just need a little more focus on Little League baseball and a little less on travel ball for Little League to remain the main attraction for years to come.

Just like it has been in the past.

Jason Dill, sports reporter, can be reached at 745-7017 or via email at jdill@bradenton.com. Follow him on Twitter @Jason__Dill.

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