If You Can Pay, You Can Play: The Problem with Travel Baseball
Samuel Tuero | On 04, Feb 2016
During the summer of 2013, while playing for the Ramapo Rangers, I was introduced to the world of travel baseball. Our team was comprised of 12-15 players, each of whom had tried out and made the team. We were expected to go to three big tournaments as well as play five to six games per week, weather permitting. The promise was that we were playing against the best of the best, which would ensure college and scout exposure. At the time, the cost for the summer and three big tournaments was $1200. How could a parent not love the idea of their child playing the sport they love almost everyday of the summer, along with the exposure necessary to play at the next level? All of that sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? Well, that’s because it is, and the better question to be asked is this: How much are you willing to pay for your child to play a game?
At the time, spending $1200 for the team, which included three showcase tournaments, uniforms, transportation (if needed), and umpires for the regular season games seemed monumentally low for what everyone thought we were receiving. The idea that began to resonate with most, if not all, of the parents was, If my son wants to play at a high level, or just the next level (whatever that may be), I must fork over thousands and thousands of dollars now for him to gain said exposure. While there are some big programs out there such as Baseball U, New Jersey Marlins, and Area Code, just to name a few, that claim to do an exceptional job of getting their kids the instruction and exposure they need and have the track record to prove it, the cost to play for these teams starts at anywhere between $2500-$3500 per season, not including transportation, travel, or food. These travel baseball organizations have taken hold of a certain group of misinformed and desperate parents who may not know any better than to fork over huge amounts of money so their child can be part of the “best.”
I am disheartened, and downright angry, that the simple game of baseball has turned into a multi-million dollar business and changed the culture of the game from If you work hard enough and are good enough you’ll make it to If you are willing to pay an explicit amount of money, well that’s just as good. Unfortunately, working hard and being good enough just isn’t good enough anymore.
To give you a brief understanding of how much money some programs make off the game of baseball, I will layout how Perfect Game has turned into one of the big monopolies at present. According to the Perfect Game and past experiences, tournaments can run from Tuesday to Sunday. They do there due diligence to make sure the parks and fields are ready for the next tournament on Monday and start the process all over again. Why do people go to these tournaments? For starters, college coaches and professional scouts are in attendance. Also, it’s an opportunity to play on a “perfect” baseball field. For the pleasure of playing on their fields, the Perfect Game charges start at $800 for an 8U tournament up to $1500 for an 18U one. With a 100 teams competing, the Perfect Game can rack in up to $150,000 per tournament just from fees! Throw in food, entrance fees for fans (no your parents DO NOT get to see you play for free) and parking and the gross quickly balloons to over $200,000.
Another example, the World Wood Bat Association, which borrowed its business model from Perfect Game, holds several tournaments in every age group starting at 14U. Well over 150 teams play in the 16U tournament, and that number grows exponentially with the 17U tournament. The price each team has to pay to enter these tournaments starts at $800. The ultimate tournament, The WWBA World Series, held in Jupiter, Florida, costs $2000 per team. With 85 teams participating, WWBA grossed $170,000 this past October, not including all the additional fees. With multiple tournaments running simultaneously, the gross really does multiply quickly! There is a ton of money to be made there.
Baseball organizations and tournament directors know that parents will be willing to pay whatever it takes for their child to get the exposure they believe they deserve. As parents understand its just another sacrifice you make, and falls in line with what your job is, so your child can be in a better position than you were. However, once you’ve spent that money and made that sacrifice, there is little to nothing done to help your son unless of course he happens to be a 6’5” tall, 225-pound player who throws 90 miles per hour.
Travel baseball transformed into the one thing it shouldn’t have: a business. Manipulating parents and players who believe they can reach the next level, with the caveat being that in order to do so you have to pay a big price. Everything comes with a price, but how high is it before we say that’s enough?
As George Will once said, “Baseball, it is said, is only a game. True. And the Grand Canyon is only a hole in Arizona. Not all holes, or games, are created equal.” Baseball is a way of life; it teaches you patience, responsibility, and above all else, humility. No matter how good you are, to continue to perform better, you must first work, and then work a little more, and more, and on and on until it’s as close to perfect as possible, at which point you work even harder. Whether it’s in the backyard with a couple of your friends, or in a big league stadium, it is a game that is supposed to be fun and fair for all to play. If you’re lucky enough, and good enough, you might just get paid to do so. Restricting the game only to those who can pay redefines its purpose to an If you can pay, you can play model.
In the summer of 2013, 100 games and 13 exhausted players later; we were at our final tournament in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, The Cal Ripken Experience. I was staying with two of my friends in a condo for that entire week, and let me tell you, in addition to playing baseball on some of the most beautiful, well-put-together stadiums we had ever seen, we were excited to be ten minutes away from the beach, the boardwalk, and the amusement parks within the area. It was towards the end of the week, during the last two days to be exact, that we came to a shocking realization: even with all the games played, all the physical and mental stress of playing our hardest, all the sweat, the time, and the headaches—nothing really changed. No college coaches or professional scouts had contacted our parents or us. We weren’t on anybody’s radar as future prospects. While that was a little disappointing, it was wonderful that we felt like little kids again, playing with friends and teammates that felt the same way, for the love of the game. That summer was humbling for me, playing so many games and having a true blast. I had the time of my life playing. That is what baseball is all about.
On our way home from South Carolina, I received a call from my town’s baseball coach. They were playing in a tournament in Pennsylvania and wanted to know if I wanted to play. “No cost, just show up,” he said. My dad said it was up to me, so, of course, we went. There, in the cornfields of Pennsylvania, I played two games with my friends from my North Bergen Town All Star team. We went to an arcade in between games, shared a meal and some laughs.
After the final game, during a consolation game played for bragging rights only, the home plate umpire, whom I talked with throughout the game, asked to speak with my father. Turns out he was a scout for Penn State baseball and he just wanted to tell him how much he liked how I played the game. The humbling part was it that wasn’t a top team, and I didn’t pay an obscene amount of money to play. I was just there to have fun and play the game I know and love.