Travel Baseball Causing More Than The Death of Little League
Expensive travel baseball isn't just killing Little League Baseball. It's killing baseball.
I don’t usually read things that are in America. It’s a Jesuit-based publication with a political slant that does not agree with mine. But a story did cross my timeline about something near and dear to my heart: baseball.
When I was a kid, I played baseball under the Little League umbrella from age 8 through age 12. Once I got to be 13, we left Havenwood Little League to create our own team and I played with that team through age 15, when I stopped playing.1
But today, Havenwood Little League does not exist. In 2002, Havenwood Little League merged with Riviera Beach Little League and two other local baseball programs in Pasadena and became the Pasadena Baseball Club. Outside of Little League Baseball.
The piece in America by John W. Miller posits that America “sold out Little League” through the widespread adoption of high-dollar travel baseball:
“I need you to take him.”
The father on the phone was upset. If his 10-year-old son did not make the team at the $2,500-per-season private baseball club where I coached, the boy would lose friends and the family’s routines would be upended, he argued. They would have to drive to another suburb for ball games.
Looking for a deeper, more forceful argument, the dad added: “This team is our community.”
The privatization of American youth sports over the past 40 years is one of those revolutions of late-stage capitalism that should shock us more than it does. We have commodified the play of millions of children into a $19.2 billion business, weakening volunteer-based programs that promise affordable sports for all children. It is a trend mirrored by our schools, hospitals and military. Once-proud public institutions are being privatized, with many unintended consequences.
For millions of American families, paying private for-profit clubs—euphemistically termed “travel teams”—thousands of dollars a year to organize athletic games for their children is now an unquestioned way of life that shapes family routines, work schedules and commutes. That is why I was sympathetic to the angry dad’s argument and, in the end, took his son for the team. (Also, the boy could really hit. Alas, the father refused to make him work on defense, explaining: “I am not a fielding dad.”)
Obviously, I don’t buy into the idea of “late-stage capitalism”. Late-stage capitalism is a Marxist construct used by socialists to explain away capitalism and the failures of socialism.
But this, which I encourage you to read in its entirety, is a very damning piece about the state of baseball in America.
Is travel baseball killing Little League in America? The closest Little League organization to Pasadena now is in Davidsonville, 23 miles away. The Broadneck, Brooklyn Park, Glen Burnie, Harundale, Havenwood, Lake Shore, and Marley Little Leagues are all no longer associated with Little League. But most of them still play, in one way or another.
But this issue goes far beyond Little League Baseball organizationally.
Miller highlights this as a problem:
The result: In the United States, baseball is becoming a mostly white country-club sport for upper-class families to consume, like a snorkeling vacation or a round of golf. “The way it’s going, all pro players are going to be rich, white kids from the suburbs, or [they will be] Dominican or Venezuelan,” one major league front office analyst told me.
And that’s a problem for baseball at every level, all the way up to the Office of the Commissioner of Baseball. And this, more than anything else, is the problem with the continued growth and success of baseball.
It’s not the uniforms, it’s not bat flips or the lack thereof, it’s not the shift, it’s not the pace of play. It’s about the fact that fewer and fewer kids are playing baseball every year.
Let’s think about two sports; Golf and NASCAR. Those two sports may not seem very similar. But they have more similarities than you think there are.
Golf has, traditionally, been a sport played by upper-class white guys. Most professional golfers look the same. They sound the same. They play the same. It’s not a coincidence that two of the most iconic golfers of the last thirty years, John Daly and Tiger Woods, were nothing like their peers in their own ways. Golf attracts high dollar, high roller sponsors. Think brands like Mercedes-Benz.
Now think about NASCAR. NASCAR started as bootleggers in the 1940’s and 1950’s trying to see who had the fastest car. For decades, NASCAR was a working class, southern sport. But over the years, the cost of entry has become more and more expensive. Kids racing go-karts and more expensive vehicles as they get older. The demographics of NASCAR drivers has changed dramatically. While many are still from the south, many are from upper-middle to upper-class backgrounds, with their appropriate support systems.
Is it any wonder that race sponsors like Goody’s and Virginia National Bank have been replaced by Bluegreen Vacations, Ally, or Bank of America?
Yes, Major League Baseball has its RBI Program to return baseball to urban fields. It has been somewhat successful in some respects in that some of its alumni like Carl Crawford, C.C. Sabathia and the Upton Brothers have become big league players. And there are eight Urban Youth Academies providing year-round instruction in the game.
But it hasn’t been enough to revive baseball completely in inner cities to what it once was. And it certainly does nothing to address the issue of middle and working-class suburban residents and the expense involved in playing the game at a high level.
It’s no coincidence that the top two picks in the 2022 MLB Draft, the Orioles Jackson Holliday and the Diamondbacks Druw Jones, were sons of superstar Major League players.
Mr. Greene, who is currently a minor league coordinator and coach for the Milwaukee Brewers, said what troubles him is not pushy parents, showboating players or bullying coaches. It is this simple fact: Baseball is no longer a game that is for everybody. “It’s become a white elitist sport,” Mr. Greene told me. “It’s a fading game.” In Florida, some high-level programs now cost over $10,000 a season. “I know families who’ve mortgaged their homes so their kids can play baseball,” he said.
Please don’t mortgage your home on a dream that your kid might be good enough to go pro.
I disagree with the idea that the sport is entirely a “white elitist sport.” After all, scores of players are of Latin American descent, including some of the game’s top superstars. And that can, partially, explain Major League Baseball’s lack of investment in the game in America. Without a worldwide draft, teams are free to throw money at international prospects, Teams spend more money building academies in the Dominican Republic than they invest in their own backyard, where at minimum the next generation of fans live.
Until more teams see value in helping the game at home, this problem for the entire sport will continue.
But it also comes back to another thing: family and community. This is the saddest quote of the entire piece, one I mentioned earlier:
Alas, the father refused to make him work on defense, explaining: “I am not a fielding dad.”
Is there a sadder quote? A dad refusing to help his son become a baseball player because he’s not “a fielding dad?”
Baseball exists not just because of the community's love of the game. But it is, quite literally, passed down from generation to generation. I wrote about this for Camden Chat in 2016:
Orioles baseball will not be the most important thing that we teach our daughter about. Nonetheless it's something that I hope that I can enjoy with her (and any future kids, too) for the rest of our lives, much as I still enjoy talking and watching baseball with my parents to this day. A fun, family-friendly, reasonably affordable activity you can do with the kids? What better way exists.
For us, the Orioles will always be a family affair.
Guess what; we still talk about baseball. Our two kids old enough to know what baseball is love the Orioles. Our eldest, now six, is in her second year of playing though she has moved over to softball. There have been times when our kids insisted that the entire family wear Orioles stuff.
They did not come out of the womb knowing about baseball. It was something that we passed on to them. Just like my folks did. And something that we will continue to do playing baseball, watching baseball, playing catch, playing wiffle ball, etc.
After all, there’s a reason why the closing scene of Field of Dreams is so poignant.
Is there a solution to all of this? Well, the genie of privatized baseball cannot be put back in the bottle. That ship has sailed and, realistically, there is too much money to be made.2 Is there saving Little League? Who knows; organizationally they still seem to be doing pretty well overseas and a U.S. team won three of the last four Little League World Series featuring international teams.3
But heavens know there has to be a way to save the sport of baseball. Travel baseball may be making people a lot of money but, in the long run, it may be killing the golden goose.
Spoiler: I wasn’t good enough to keep playing.
And if I had any skill to make some of that money working in baseball, I wouldn’t have a day job.