Thursday, September 18, 2008

Travel Ball Chips Away At Little League’s Base

RT Staff Notes: We are a web site that provides news and opinions about travel ball and playing baseball at the next level. And on occasion we will get into a rant or two about college and the NCAA. But today, we are getting back to our roots in travel ball. For our readers that didn't see the news clip about travel ball and it's impact on Little League in Virginia, we are re-printing it for today's post. Look down our side column under College Baseball News, Select and Travel Ball News and MLB News for the latest information and late breaking stories.

By Allen Gregory
Sports Writer / Bristol Herald Courier
Published: September 15, 2008

BRISTOL, Va. – It’s football time in the Mountain Empire, yet Cory Owens has other concerns.

On many nights this fall, you can find the 13-year-old Wallace Middle School student among friends practicing baseball at the Bristol Senior League Field.

Owens is part of the growing number of youth nationwide participating in travel ball, a controversial program where a select group of players spend months together practicing and traveling to tournaments.

“Travel ball is more of a challenge than Little League,” Owens said. “I’m having fun and learning a lot of different stuff about the game.”

Travel baseball and softball teams have long been popular in Northern Virginia. The concept has only gained popularity in Southwest Virginia in recent years, however.

Former John Battle athletic standout Lance Owens, father of Cory, manages the Washington County, Va.-based Southwest War Cats.

“We currently have 10 players for our fall team, and we usually have 12 in the summer,” Owens said. “Seven of those boys have actually been playing together since the minor league age group.”

The War Cats compete on the USSSA (United States Specialty Sports Association) level. There are several differences between recreational ball – such as Little League or Babe Ruth – and travel teams.

Recreational teams are usually chosen via open registration, with rules designed for equal playing time.

On the travel team level, which includes USSSA and Amateur Athletic Union teams, players are chosen on ability and must pay expenses.

Some critics have blamed the rise of travel ball for the decline in the number of youth participating in Little League baseball and softball.

“Our guys played Little League as 12-year-olds, then we just stuck to travel ball last year,” coach Owens said. “We get to play 50 to 60 games a year that way.”

Richard Fisher has a different perspective. Fisher, the vice president of Bristol Little League, helped to start Little League softball in Bristol in 1991.

“Travel ball has a had a bigger impact on softball locally, and it was much worse this year,” Fisher said. “We’ve heard complaints from officials of area leagues, and it has really cut down on the number of teams participating in the various state tournaments.”

Fisher takes issue with the manner in which players are selected for travel teams.

“What I’ve seen is that a lot of kids who are just learning how to play and may not be the most talented get left behind,” Fisher said. “Some of these [travel] teams go all over the area to pick and choose the best players.”

Bill Hill serves as the longtime administrator for District 1 Little League which covers communities from Rye Cove to Marion.

“I’ve heard a lot of complaints from district presidents relating to travel ball,” Hill said. “It’s hurt softball pretty bad.”

Hill feels the rise of travel teams takes away the pride of playing for a community-based squad.

“Kids can also get burnt out or hurt their arms, plus you have the expenses,” Hill said. “It’s basically pay-to-play with travel teams.”

Little League officials are employing various methods to combat the effects of travel ball.

Fred Bowman, president of Bristol Little League, said there are travel teams on the Senior League (age 14-15) and Little League (age 11-12) levels in Bristol, Va.

Players can compete on travel teams from age eight until 18.

“Most of the travel teams play tournaments on weekends, so we’ve adjusted our schedules so they do not interfere with regular Little League games,” said Bowman, who has been involved in youth baseball in Bristol for over four decades.

Bowman said the numbers of players involved in Bristol Little League remained stable this year, except for a drop at the minor league level.

Abingdon has become a haven for travel teams. According to Abingdon parent and coach Keith Perrigan, there are benefits to both travel ball and Little League competition.

“We had a travel team this year and it was a good experience,” Perrigan said. “Travel ball provides an opportunity for players with more advanced skills to play against better competition.”

Perrigan said another benefit of travel ball is the opportunity to play tournaments at expansive complexes in Kingsport, Christiansburg and Danville.

Despite the advantages in terms of competition and facilities, Perrigan said Little League remains the priority in Abingdon. Several Abingdon teams earned district Little League titles this year.

“Little League has tons of tradition, plus it encourages participation of players of all skill sets, and stresses good character traits,” Perrigan said. “And Little League becomes as competitive as travel ball during all-star season.”

There are several success stories involving travel teams in Southwest Virginia.

The Smyth County Mets won the USSSA 12-and-under Virginia state title this spring. Meanwhile, Damascus has won two state Little League softball titles in three years, relying on a group of athletes who also compete on a travel team.

For the Owens family of Washington County, baseball is a passion. Cory Owens balances his duties as a catcher for the War Cats and a linebacker for the Wallace Middle School football team.

“I just focus on baseball after football practice ends,” Owens said. “It makes for a long day, but I don’t mind.”

According to coach Owens, the War Cats finished 29th among 2,080 USSSA teams last season based on a national ranking system.

The 2009 USSSA season began in August, and the War Cats finished second in their opening tournament at Kingsport two weeks ago.

“I’ve been playing baseball since I was six,” Cory Owens said. “I love the game and want to play as long as I can.”

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