Berkeley Little League: Welcome

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Monday, March 3
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Clear & Present Danger:

Travel Baseball

After many years of trying to work with various travel teams, we have instituted a new policy that effectively removes our leagues support of travel baseball. This does not directly affect the great majority of our league, but based on feedback and the disappointing response from some I feel a better explanation to our full membership is in order. First, a little history and some background information. As you know, LL baseball was started over fifty years ago and it is based on the core principles of character, courage and loyalty used to teach our children valuable life lessons.  We are a recognized charitable organization that enjoys non profit tax exemption recognized and declared by Congress. We offer every child a place to play. Learning baseball is just a bonus. Of course, despite our efforts to remind folks of this point, some have a tendency to forget.

Things in youth sports have changed over the years, and great deal of it can be correlated to the change in college and professional sports, namely the incredible money in both.  Where once upon a time kids used to play multiple sports, now they tend to pick a favorite ‘so they get better’, sometimes at a very low age.  And thus we have ‘Travel’ Baseball.

Travel Baseball really started as “Elite Baseball” where the very best players in their mid teens would form teams of the very best caliber, with the very best coaching and work on their skills. While these “Elite” teams do still exist most Travel teams have evolved into less skilled independent teams of local players, with the teams now starting as low as 7 or 8 years olds. The Travel System has evolved into a proliferation of teams that are having a great effect on organized youth leagues like Little League baseball; essentially they have become LL without the rules and responsibilities.

So why is this an issue? Why should we care where kids play baseball?  Well, we don’t - to a point. And the point comes when the teams directly compete with our organization to the degree it affects our leagues ability to provide the quality program ALL of our kids and community deserve. While it has not gotten to an extreme point in Berkeley (yet), it has in our surrounding towns.

How does this affect our league? In many, many ways.

Volunteer time: It has been demonstrated many times over that once a travel team is established, that team becomes the primary focus of those involved, and our league becomes an after thought. Every person has a limited amount of time (the amount is different for everyone) to devote. Ask any league anywhere what their biggest need is and they would answer “More Help”.

Coaching: Often coaches try to coach both a LL team & travel team. Again, the focus often gets placed on the ‘good’ travel team and the regular LL teams gets short changed. It may be with the best intentions, but the fact is the time spent practicing a travel team could be used to the benefit of all the kids in our league, instead of the select few.

Revenue: In many leagues, the participation has dropped dramatically, to the point of a fiscal crisis. This is a direct result of focus being shifted from LL to travel teams. The former Brick National LL went to Cal Ripken specifically because of the travel influence, within two years went bankrupt, defaulted on a loan on their practice facility and left a mess behind for a new LL to clean up, under great financial distress. In Toms River, both leagues are at less than half the size of just a few years ago, and have had to raise registration costs to over $200 to be able to pay their bills.

Strain on Resources: Again, while currently under control (but now seriously threatend) in our league, in many towns travel teams dramatically ‘sponge’ off the non profit little league. They use fields which leagues maintain, use supplies and equipment, adding  wear & tear and adding hard to define soft costs – all at the expense of the Little League. The infamous line “can we borrow…” costs our LL money. For example, this fall, while being used for travel ball, a set of bases disappeared from Mallard and we will replace them at a cost of over $300. Complaining about a bag of lime, bag of speedy dry, empty first aid kit, dirty umpire gear or a broken rake may sound trivial, but it all adds up. And it is not just the costs of the items, it is the time to order them, inventory, inspect and maintain the equipment – none of which falls upon the travel team. Travel teams do not order sod, infield mix, fix sprinklers, over seed, groom, or maintain the fields; Little League does.

Safety and Security: Travel ball does not do background checks, issue safety manuals, train coaches, monitor pitch counts, provide parent training – but they do take full advantage of what Little League does. Nor do travel leagues have rules to protect players such as pitch counts, mandatory safety equipment and the child protection plans. And without the structure, rules and monitoring of LL, these all have the potential to be abused in travel ball.

Increase costs: Travel ball drives the costs of LL up. Because it is a pay to play league with no effort to run as a charitable non profit, and the fact that it can take advantage of the infrastructure of LL, it has very little motivation to control costs. The easiest example of how it drives up costs is umpiring. Umpiring costs our league over $10,000 per year. We are able to currently pay our umpires less than most leagues because of the good working conditions we offer. However, not only does travel ball use our umpires, that we train, teach, develop and provide equipment to, they pay more than we do, effectively driving up the costs to our league.

Camaraderie: The key to the incredible improvements of our league over the last 10-15 years was the dedication of committed volunteers with a desire to provide a quality program for our children. ALL OF OUR CHILDREN. This type of dedication is a true test of character, and I am proud to have been small part of building our league’s legacy as a community leader and force that has improved the quality of life in our town. Travel ball hurts the sense of camaraderie in many ways by shifting the focus from the league to the team and individual player. Instead of camaraderie it promotes rivalry and jealously; if not at first then as time goes by. The fact is, most teams do not last for more than a few of years before drama takes them over.  Furthermore, it spreads these issues to our league. The best example comes from All Star selection, which is always a difficult time. We DO make every effort to keep our selection process as fair as possible. But because local travel teams often take the very best players from just one age group, there is both a sense of entitlement by those players/parents to all star participation and resentment by other players/ parents that feel the teams are not selected fairly or are somehow pre determined.

The “Better” Myth: The number one reason folks say they play travel ball is to give their players a chance to get “better” by playing “better” competition. In fact, playing more ‘talented’ players has little effect on children 8-14 years old. They are simply too young to be able to definitively determine their athletic skill. Often the most ‘talented’ players at a young age are actually the most physically mature, eventually other players catch up and often surpass the more ‘talented’ as they get older. This fact underscores the importance of giving every player in the league the very best opportunity – today’s bench player is tomorrow’s starting varsity second baseman – it happens all the time.

 The best way to improve the baseball skills is for the coaches to become better. Our league has made a concerted effort to make available some of the very best in professional training and instruction. We have made this investment to help all our players improve, not just the select few.

Some participants will argue that Travel Baseball does not interfere with Little League. That may sound good, but we can give many examples of when that has not held true – every year. Some may argue that Little League comes first – until it does not. Some may argue that they follow Little League rules – until that ‘close’ game when they do not. Some may argue they have contributed to Little League – but that does not entitle them to take more than their fair share, at the expense of others.It is a parent’s prerogative to decide what their kids participate in.

We recognize that many families that play travel ball are just looking for their kids to get an extra opportunity and do not understand how their support for the competition can harm our organization. Well, now you know.

It takes Character to make a selfless decision for the greater good. It takes Courage to go against the flow and make a hard or unpopular decision.  And Loyalty to an organization from which so much has been gained is not much to ask.

The bottom line is that support of Travel Baseball during our core season in the spring has NO benefit to our Little League organization. Based on what has been happening in other towns, like a cancer that is not recognized early, it could be catastrophic.