RT Staff Note: Every year, the same questions get asked about whether or not travel ball is worth the time, money and effort. The following is my answer to that ongoing issue.
First of all, I have been through the "travel ball" experience. ( I like to call them College Development Programs or CDP's.) I wouldn't change much about my sons experience. Neither would many of my colleagues or friends...and they have all become very close friends BECAUSE of my son and his experience with the CDP's he was involved in.
For instance...If you are like most CDP baseball parents, you just spent the weekend watching your son play either in a local tournament or in some far away place that required lots of driving or an expensive flight. People at my office thought I was crazy when my son went through this, but when I asked them what they did over the weekend, it wasn't that much different. Their weekend involved dinner and a few drinks with friends and some yard work. Some saw a movie, others a concert. Some had weekends in Vegas, Tahoe or some other far away place. Mine involved dinner and drinks with the parents of my sons team mates and some ball-yard work. Some of those weekends were in SOCAL, Sacramento, Arizona or East Cobb GA. Substitute the concert, movie and weekend leisure travel with a lot of baseball games locally or to other far away places and in my mind, we had similar weekends.
This post is about how we have altered our lifestyles, to give our sons a chance to be the best they can be at baseball. The questions that we always hear are, after all of the travel and nights away from the rest of the family, work, friends, costly lessons, tournament fees, coaches per diems and $350 bats, are our sons better baseball players? Do they understand and love the game more? And, is it their passion or ours?
To me and the friends I made going through many years of CDP ball...It definitely was well worth the experience. All of our sons have or are still playing college ball...some are playing MILB and one is in the Bigs already. We think that if they had taken the route that most of their friends took, and had relied on their high school coaches and the local leagues to get them to the next level, our sons would not have had the offers or the opportunities to play D-1. Now we know that there are exceptions. Some of our sons friends that took the rec ball route, have had a chance to play JC ball and stepped up their routines and became more serious about the game. They learned that rec and high school did not prepare them nearly enough...but had good enough JC coaches that showed them what it takes to play at the next level.
But the one thing our sons had early on that their other friends did not, was a passion, self discipline and serious attitude about baseball and the knowledge that the game requires a devoted work ethic both in the off season and in pre-game preparations that we have witnessed many rec ball athletes do not have. It's not their friends fault. That's the way they were taught. There are distinct philosophical differences in the way a CDP coach develops his players and a Babe Ruth coach develops his.
Nevertheless, below we have listed some characteristics of CDP's to look for and even some things we would have done differently based upon our last 10-12 years of travel.
What is a good CDP? Our definition is a team that has it's total focus on the development of the players and not just on winning that $5 piece of plastic for the sake of the coaches egos. The costs of a good CDP can be daunting, but make sure that your team is going to the right tournaments and showcases that will:
1.)Get exposure for the players first and foremost. Many of the top high school tournaments will have scouts in attendance and you want your team to be there. There are many so called travel teams that beat their chest because they win a lot of local and regional tournaments. While it's great that they are playing good ball that is probably a step up from the rec alternatives, when you weigh the costs versus benefits, what was accomplished by winning that trophy that's bound for an old box in the garage?
2.)Works with the tournament organizers to make sure your team is playing against the best competition. While winning is great for the psyche of the team as a whole, it's not always going to benefit them if they are playing patsies to get to the championship round. Some people will disagree with us on this, but we strongly feel that your sons will gain more grit playing the good teams early. And, if your travel team has a great reputation, you'll get more scouts at those early games against the better competition.
3.) Be Organized! Be wary of the travel programs that don't have their summer of 2010 schedule completed by January...Yes that's right...January!!! Many of the top tournaments and showcases like the USA Baseball and WWBA tourney's are invitation only and if a newer organization wants in, they will have to campaign to get their team in the tournament early in the year. Other showcases tournaments have deadlines and they are usually very early. A lot of planning and logistics go into these national tournaments and they usually don't accept late entries unless there is a cancellation.
4.) Have 90% of their roster in place by December of the previous summer. Many of the top clubs will have their try-outs this fall for the 2011 summer season. It's important that a club knows it's roster so that it can have the spring to create their own player profiles to send out to college recruiters. This does not negate your sons efforts to send out letters and profiles however. Your son needs to do his own marketing on top of what his coaches are executing.
5.) Has a reputation as a winning, professional organization with the college and pro scouts. Look at the travel clubs web site and look at their alumni page. Many of the better organizations will have a section of their web site dedicated to former players that have gone on to college or even the pros. That says volumes about their dedication to player development. Many college coaches look to these organizations for help and player profiles. Also, ask them if they are communicating with college coaches and where they feel your son fits in with the type of colleges they will be contacting.
6.) A payment plan that precedes the season. It is our experience that if a club has a payment plan that is paid prior to the season, then that team gets 100% participation with its players. These payment plans are usually monthly and more reasonable to budget for. These clubs also have travel agencies that they work with and their web site is like a one stop shop. If you have a good, competitive club and they don't have this set-up...have the coaches get it done this way. It's easy and web site set-up costs are usually free or very inexpensive. There are other clubs that have a pay as you go policy and they are the ones that usually are scrambling for players before every tournament. Those type of clubs are usually very frustrating and costly experiences.
7.)Coaches as teachers. The best organizations have coaches that work with each individual player to help make him a better player. They have practices and aren't just winding kids up like a toy and letting them play the weekend tourney's. They are also the teams that gather as a group every inning before their at bats, going over the decisions that the players made in the field, talking about adjustments that need to be made at the plate and getting them in the right frame of mind. Most of these coaches really know the game and love spreading that knowledge to their players. That's the type of added value that makes a good travel team worth the investment for your son.
8.) It's Not A Free Ride
We have heard time and time again that travel ball is for rich dads that want to live vicariously through their kids. Not true! Yes, there may be a good number of parents that fall into this category and a good number of travel clubs that will accept any ones money to feed that parents desire. But, for the most part, good travel clubs are about developing and giving players the opportunity to take their game to the next level. And, those top travel clubs have a cost. And, we as parents are whipping out that check book like it was a sure stock tip.
The one thing we would have done differently, would have been to get our kids way more involved in the fund-raising aspect of their travel team. Many of these kids have it too easy and we as parents are guilty of making it easy for them. I know of several Georgia, Florida and Texas teams that raise 100% of their travel costs and coaches fees through candy drives, car washes, raffles and bake sales. Their kids are a part of that fund raising process. There's nothing wrong with parents bringing those candy bars to the office...that's usually pretty easy money...but so is a group of athletic looking kids in baseball caps going door to door or sitting up at the grocery store selling cookies, candy, and raffle tickets to help pay for that trip to East Cobb, Orlando or San Diego. This discipline also gives them ownership of their team and their accomplishments. It also keeps costs down for you, because depending on the organization, the total summer expenses for a high school travel team that is entered into all of the top tournaments and showcases can be expensive.
However those costs can be cut drastically if you room with another family and opt to go to the grocery store and barbeque by the hotel pool (much cheaper, healthier and more fun in our opinion)instead of eating out every night. My sons and my best friends were made on those nights by a hotel pool BBQing and tipping a few cold beverages...(I of course had the adult cold beverage) Also, the advantage of having a travel team that plans ahead will allow you to shop for airfares and hotels well in advance and take advantage of discount rates.
Anyway...that's my take...I write about this stuff everyday and have many more opinions on this subject...Bottom line...my son and his friends still talk about those days when they see each other before a college game, see each other at a summer collegiate league game or communicate on Facebook. I do the same with their parents when I see them. What a wonderful experience it was. We wouldn't have it any other way.
One other thing...to the people who say that the best players will be found..How do you know he is a good player if he is not competing against the best players? There are exceptions and I am sure many of you can name a dozen or so...but college baseball recruits thousands each year...not a few dozen...these tourney's help the college recruiters in many ways...they are a one stop shopping experience that they need given budget cuts and decreased travel allowances. They also can help you as a parent put things into perspective as it relates to your own perception of your own kids talent. And..for the record...even Bryce Harper as sure as a bet he was as a prospect...played on a variety of very good development programs...usually above his age group...always pushing to be a better player...and guess what...it worked for him.