When I was younger the baseball model was as follows: You played baseball for your local little league team and if you were good enough you were selected to travel around the area. If you wanted more baseball during the Summer, there were only a couple of options for travel baseball programs to choose from. The times, they are changing. The travel baseball model has now taken over. While little league still exists and has some very quality baseball players, most of the elite players are playing on Travel Baseball Teams. In many cases even the players that make the Little League World Series have played travel baseball, but cannot pass up the chance to be on ESPN.
Travel baseball oftentimes provides much more quality instruction to kids, with high quality indoor facilities, top-notch equipment, and much better competition. This is true to some degree, however, there are some misconceptions. The big problem today is, while there are very good travel baseball teams, the increase in teams has watered down the talent level drastically. Some organizations have 2-4 teams per an age level and cost between $500-$4000. Oftentimes the instruction is very similar to what you may get in little league, and it could be argued that some little league coaches are better. Everyone knows the main motivator for these teams, yet parents still dish out the money, so their kid can be labeled a “travel baseball player”. In the end, is this right way to go?
When players decides to do travel baseball they might get criticized by local teams, parents, and friends. As a result, some animosity and jealousy can ensue. The local parents would like the kids to stay together, might even challenge the worth of travel baseball altogether, and make it sound like your kid is too good or stuck-up to play with local kids. Many parents may also ponder, “My little league team beat a travel team, so why play travel baseball?” They aren’t totally wrong either. If a travel team is playing in and getting beat by local teams, what is the point of doing travel Baseball? I look at it as, if your kid is playing travel baseball and is playing in local tournaments against little league teams, maybe you should question the motivation of your organization and the quality of that team.
As stated earlier, travel baseball is watered down to some extent and many organizations like USSSA have different divisions to deal with this problem. Comparing a little league team and a travel team is very much like comparing apples to oranges. In travel baseball, leading off and pitching starts at 8. Little League doesn’t allow leading off at all, meaning leadoffs can start at 13. I have always maintained and most coaches would agree, while the percentage of throwing a runner out is much lower in travel baseball, it gives both the catcher, baserunner, and pitcher a huge advantage as they get older. The game is much faster in travel baseball and the little league catchers may get a false sense of security with their arms.
Travel baseball has received bad publicity in recent years for the pay-to-play model. The criticism comes mostly from former players, coaches, and broadcasters that don’t realize how much the game has changed at the youth level. In the early days of baseball, the game was meant only for wealthy aristocrats and was more of a status symbol than actual talent. It then changed to become America's Pastime and later integrated to include all cultures. Today, some kids are extremely talented, but cannot afford to pay for travel baseball. It is a mistake to leave these talented/athletic kids behind. There are a few solutions for this. Some organizations are offering scholarships to kids to play for free, getting enough sponsors to greatly reduce the price of travel baseball, and in some cases they raise enough money to make it free altogether.
Travel baseball is not for everyone. In most cases, it gives players a distinct advantage in high school, college, or further. If your kid is currently on a travel baseball team, ask yourself these questions: Is your kid playing good competition? Is your kid getting more quality instruction than they would locally? Is he/she having fun? Are they improving? If so, maybe it is all worth it. Just know that not all organizations and coaches are equal.