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Travel Ball: Are More Players, Fewer Teams Needed?

Teams should have 20 players, not 12

Baseball catcher getting signEvery year, without fail, independent travel baseball teams start up without the number of players they need to insure a dependable, quality, and competitive team but, just as importantly, a healthy and safe baseball playing experience.

To begin with, please permit me to share two old sayings:
  • "The tail doesn't wag the dog," and

  • "Quality is always better than quantity."

The problem is that, while you undoubtedly agree with the wisdom of these sayings, I bet you that you won't take these sayings to heart.

Why? Because I (we) have been saying the same darn thing, every year since 1995, and no one seems to be listening!

Perhaps my message was/is unclear; perhaps what we have here, as the saying goes, is a failure to communicate?  Nope, that's not it.

No, the problem is that, every year, without fail, recreational youth baseball teams ask me for advice on creating a competitive travel baseball program and ignore that advice.  I always preface my remarks to coaches by predicting that they will go through a four-step process of:

  1. ignoring my advice;

  2. succumbing to parent pressure;

  3. regretting (1) and (2); and

  4. forgetting (1), (2) and (3), and repeating the same process again the next year.

And, what is it that all these youth baseball coaches do? They fail to create teams with a sufficient number of players to not only insure a dependable, quality, and competitive team but, just as importantly, a healthy and safe baseball playing experience.

When I point out that they have asked for my advice and then proceeded to completely ignore it, the response I invariably get from coaches is, "I agree with you, John, but the parents want their kids to get a lot of playing time."

As anyone who has been reading my columns for the past 15 years knows, I don't play favorites.  I don't side with coaches, or players, parents, or organizations (although, truth be told, I do admit to a little consistent anger at the NCAA, but ... who doesn't?). Like a good umpire, I simply "call'em as I see'em."  

To find out where I come out on the  "my kid has got to play a lot" issue, here's a letter that I suggest be handed out to all parents before the beginning of every independent travel ball season.  Don't want to take the heat for the letter? Attribute it to me. I have thick skin. I can take it.


Dear Parents:

Our ball club is designed to accommodate 20 players, not 12. In the past you may have participated on teams that have promised your son a tremendous amount of playing time involving many games and much exciting travel. You may have concerns as to why we chose to carry this number of players. As you read, please begin to recall that experience.

We created this team as a quality alternative to open enrollment leagues. The term quality is important. We believe that quality is vital to our mission. We will make four promises to you:

  1. We will never lie to you.

  2. Your son will play. 

  3. Your child will leave this program a better player that when he arrived.

  4. If you have any concerns we will immediately address them directly in a meeting with you and your son together, in a location other than the field.

If you total that all up, what does it spell? Fun. Fun is not failing; succeeding is not always winning. It is not fun to fail, irrespective of the game's outcome.

We believe that quality has nothing to do with playing every inning of every game. A quality competitive experience exposes a player to equal or superior talent, in which the player can compete at his chosen position with consistent enthusiasm, effort and skill. He will receive training based on recent scientifically-proven information. We will give him an opportunity to lead and motivate others. As such he must be mentally and physical prepared to accept that role every day. If your son elects to compete to play in high school or college, recruiters will look for a consistent demonstration of superior skill. Playing 6 games in one week will expose anything but consistent skill. Scrapping together 9 to 11 players to play a game will not demonstrate anything but mental and physical fatigue.

As you know, we are a developmental program. No one can develop by merely using skills developed last season. There is little chance of improvement by merely playing games. You may recall this statement from your personal training in your own business career. Improvement requires change. It is impossible to improve or develop by repeating last year's skill set. This is most misunderstood in baseball.

For us to fulfill our promises to you we must employ teaching coaches who can educate your son athletically to become a student athlete. Our coaches need to direct his motivation to incorporate his innate intelligence into his athletic experience. We also must design a schedule that accommodates practices. In a developmental program, practice workouts are as important and in many ways MORE important than actual games.

You are not alone in thinking that traditional baseball practices are boring. There are good reasons for players not wanting to attend. We have invested in continued baseball education and coach training to make sure that boredom will not be part of your son's experience with this organization. We will provide practices that are fun as well as instructive. Our practices will focus on mistakes that occurred in previous games and include input and leadership from players as to their specific ideas and personal needs.

We believe that playing time is more related to total immersion in the game than merely to playing a position on the field. This is why we carry a sufficient number of players to be competitive in every inning of every game and to conduct meaningful practices. Why choose an independent team experience that ends up receiving, because of financial and time commitment constraints,  nothing more than a house league experience?

We realize that you still may not be convinced of the merits of our policy to roster more players.

You may recall being in this situation. Beginning in July, a team of 12 to 14 will routinely see 9 to 10 players attending games and (if there are any) practices ... maybe 5 attend, severely limiting the process.

The following are, by most everyone's standards, reasonable and acceptable absences for not attending recreation commitments. They have all been SUBMITTED BY PARENTS.

The TOP 10 Reasons

1. Family vacation

2. Family emergency

3. Religious conflict

4. Educational tutoring

5. Injury

6. Illness

7. Colleges visits and showcase camps

8. Single parent business travel and child care

9. Transportation problems

10. Financial strain (this one isn't usualy said out loud, but it is often present)

All are legitimate personal reasons. But remember this: if the team only has 12 players to begin with, and a couple of players can't make the game, the team is still left with 9 players and occasionally forced to recruit a player from the opposing team just to play the game.  By week's end the skilled pitchers are fatigued, sore and have exceeded the number of innings they can safely pitch without risk of injury.  Non-pitchers will end up having to, well, pitch in to fill the gap. The rest of the team, which may have played 4 to 6 games over the course of the previous week (a week typical for major league baseball players, but they are paid professionals!), and are, at best, lethargic. Throw in the fact that most recreational players lack the proper conditioning and nutrition for such a grueling schedule, and it is easy to understand why the game ends up being a miserable experience. Is this the fun you expected when you signed your kid up? Is this an all-too-familiar experience?  Remember when, at  the beginning of the season, all of you wanted a team that carried only 12 players so your child could play more?

Our program chooses quality over quantity. We would rather have players play 4 to 5 innings a game, motivated, alert, focused 100% on the game, and competitive every moment, than field a tired team, with players occupying positions that they do not know how to play or care little to learn. We understand that our players will legitimately miss a few games; others will take his place, equal to the task. We will be formidable, competitive and provide the best baseball education to child has experienced to date.


Coach [insert name here]

POST SCRIPT: In my experience too many parents and players think they are qualified for independent baseball teams.

  • Many mistakenly believe that they will improve their reputation by merely playing on a "TRAVEL" team and that they will automatically improve simply by playing more games;

  • Some are participating primarily or solely as a result of peer pressure (from other parents, from other kids);

  • Players/parents overestimate personal talent and underestimate the commitment required, especially in time;
  • Players are not physically, mentally or emotionally prepared to commit to the process;
  • Some families don't have the financial resources to cover all of  the extra, often hidden costs (motel, meals, transportation, etc.) and run out out of money before the end of the season.

This is not a criticism. I simply says that the decision to join a travel team should be considered carefully. The independent team experience requires many family sacrifices. Open enrollment league teams offer fewer family scheduling conflicts and singnificantly less economic stress.  Either way, parents need to understand clearly, prior to making a commitment to participate, all the issues that the family will face.

Coaches have a responsibility to clearly communicate the team's mission statement, core values and required player/family commitments ahead of time and in writing.  If they don't, they should expect players to miss games and some to drop off the team for good. An independent team means just that: players (and their parents) can vote with their feet.

A massive turnover in independent teams is evidence that both parties are not doing a good job communicating with each other, resulting in unfulfilled, promises and expectations. The only people who will end up profiting will be the guys selling the uniforms!

Due diligence required

Parents: think seriously before making a commitment to an independent baseball team. Call a few of last season's parents to obtain their personal experience. Watch a few games. Due diligence will insure that you sign on to a significant athletic experience, not an unpleasant and expensive social exercise.

Coaches: as coaches of independent teams your job is to teach and provide the kids and their parents a fun learning experience. If you can't or won't, don't create the team! If you think your responsibility is merely to be a general manager, create a schedule, fill out a game roster,and after the game take the kids to center field to tick off a long laundry list of things they did wrong, disappointment will surely follow. If you think you can create a serious schedule and meaningful program with just 12 players, you are simply wrong! If you have tried such an approach in the past, did you forget what happened? What makes you think  this time will be different?

  • Run you team as if it were your business: define your mission and lead the group to achieve.

  • Acquire the information needed to excel

  • Determine the skills you need to develop

  • Hire great people to execute the plan

  • Discover leaders within and help them lead.

The 35% solution

If these comments and issues jog a recent memory or experience and prompt you to re-think the whole travel ball concept, the logical end result should be more players on fewer teams, which would mean elimination of about 35% of independent teams. 

It probably won't  happen because of one simple word: ego.  The sad fact is that the phrase,  "it's all about the kids!" is a joke. All too often, independent travel ball is really all about the adults and their egos.

Don't believe me? Wait 12 months and read this article again.

John Pinkman is President of Pinkman Baseball Academies in Springfield, Virginia and MomsTeam's baseball expert.

Created July 23, 2010