Youth baseball teams going farther and farther

Published 4:17 pm Wednesday, August 13, 2008

By By JAY REEVES, Associated Press Writer
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — One inning at a time, Brady Kemp is getting closer to his dream of playing for the Atlanta Braves. He has endured numbing road trips to no-name ballparks and crashed in small-town motels after late games.
A seasoned veteran, Brady is 8. He’s been playing ball since he was 3.
Once mainly for middle- and high-schoolers, traveling baseball teams are luring younger and younger players. Teams rove the nation like big-leaguers so kids still learning to read can play the best competition in the nicest parks for the biggest trophies.
It’s August: Is the tournament this weekend in Cooperstown, N.Y., or Orlando, Fla.?
The trend troubles some parents and coaches. They worry about spending thousands annually so youngsters can play in baseball tournaments run by national organizations pulling in millions of dollars. One nonprofit’s CEO took in $400,000 in a year.
They also fear elementary-age kids getting burned out on the game or, worse, getting hurt from being overworked at a tender age. For neighborhood recreational leagues, meanwhile, travel teams can cause a talent drain.
Families in the travel-ball grind admit it can be physically and financially taxing. Just try keeping 7-year-olds occupied during a rain delay a state away from home or buying airplane tickets and insurance for an entire youth team.
To a person, parents say they do it all for their children.
Their kids may not ever make it to the Little League World Series, which starts Thursday in Williamsport, Pa., but they don’t really need to. There are dozens of tournaments every summer that promoters bill as a ‘‘World Series’’ of some sort.
Brady Kemp’s mom said she wouldn’t trade anything for the experience she and her husband had running a team for players 8 and under that played 30 games this year. They didn’t leave their home state of Mississippi, but they might next year.
Brady dreams of playing for the Braves, and Kemp said she is going to help him make it if he can.
It is virtually impossible to say how many youths play on traveling teams in the U.S., since such squads typically don’t belong to any league.
Travel teams usually hold tryouts to find the best players for a limited number of slots, and kids sometimes are recruited from other cities or states. By contrast, recreational leagues generally take all comers and often have rules limiting rosters to residents of a specific area.
The growth of Little League Baseball Inc. has leveled off in recent years, with about 2.2 million baseball and softball players in the United States. Chief executive Steve Keener attributes that mainly to video games and soccer rather than players leaving recreational leagues for travel teams.
Some of the clubs at the Little League World Series this week will also compete elsewhere as travel teams, Keener said, and there is no rule against it.
Thomas Cochran coached a travel team for 8-year-olds this year that played about 80 games, competing both as the Forest Hill All Stars and the Mississippi Thunder. The kids are too young to pitch, so coaches stand in the middle of the diamond and toss the ball to hitters. Cochran said he has even heard of travel T-ball teams for preschoolers.
Sally S. Johnson, a spokeswoman for the National Council of Youth Sports, said travel teams pulling in the best young players have helped create room for less-skilled players in recreational leagues, but they have also upset the mix between natural-born shortstops and benchwarmers.
Medical experts are worried about too much baseball putting a strain on the developing bodies of young players.
A coach who helped bring travel baseball to Texas two decades ago, Bruce Lambin, said unscrupulous adults will ride a young pitcher as long as they can if it means winning a tournament. ‘‘There is no way you can protect those kids’ arms,’’ he said.
Some teams are connected with for-profit companies that operate training facilities complete with indoor batting cages, pitching mounds and playing fields. Others are classified as nonprofit organizations under federal law, but tax forms available online show many bring in tens of thousands of dollars annually.
Deloney’s son plays on an Alabama-based team that participates mainly in tournaments sanctioned by the Florida-based United States Specialty Sports Association, or USSSA, a nonprofit organization that is a leader in the youth sports industry.
Tax records show USSSA brought in $5.4 million in 2005 and its chief executive, Donald Dedonatis, received $401,000 in compensation. Dedonatis and other USSSA executives did not return messages seeking comment.
All told, Deloney figures travel ball cost his family as much as $6,000 for team fees, uniforms and transportation. His team played in Cooperstown this summer in a 98-team tournament that included teams from as far away as Hawaii.