In a column earlier this summer in the Boston Sunday Globe, noted sports writer Dan Shaughnessy took a break from discussing the woes of the Boston Red Sox to share his opinion about a recent trend that is influencing amateur baseball players nationwide. He said the following of how young players, and their parents, seem to be choosing to spend their developmental years (and money):
AAU baseball programs (aka “The Devil”) are killing local legion baseball and pose a threat to high school programs. Stop the madness. Let kids play ball with their friends and neighbors. Nobody gets overlooked. Save your money. Your young ace pitcher will still be “discovered” if he plays for his high school or local legion team.
At the heart of the matter, which Shaughnessy alludes to, is a question that tens of thousands of ball players from Maine to California ponder every year: What is the best way for me to get noticed?
Amateur baseball in America had long had a classic, structured road map in place for young players to develop and grow. It started with Little League - going from hitting the ball off the tee, to having parent coaches act as the pitchers, to finally having kids pitch to themselves. When kids aged out of Little League, there were the Pony and Babe Ruth Leagues. It is around this age that kids started competing for their schools - whether it was junior high school or their high school’s junior varsity program. Finally, those who were talented enough were then selected to their high school’s varsity team. The best players in any one area would also compete for their local American Legion Post in the summer, playing against the best talent in their region on a nightly basis. But that is all in the past. Somewhere, at some point, under the guise of player development and the promise of more playing time, “AAU” baseball was born. The Amateur Athletic Union was the first governing body to oversee games between travel teams that were not affiliated with any recognized organization. It paved the way for thousands of leagues to pop up all over the country promoting pay-for-play baseball. So much so that “AAU” is now just a synonym for “travel” and it is likely that the game going on at your town’s local field doesn’t even have a single player who actually lives in your town.
I do not have a rooting interest in either side of the argument. I have coached high school level players for five years on both the travel ball circuit and, most recently, for an American Legion team in Eastern Massachusetts. So while I will not agree with Shaughnessy and say that AAU baseball (read: travel baseball) is the devil, I also do not think it is the end all solution to your baseball dreams.
That one thing that he has unequivocally, 100% correct though? If you are good enough, you will be noticed.
So the question tens of thousands of ball players should be asking is not, “What is the best way for me to be noticed?” but rather, “What is the best way for me to get good enough?”
I have coached many players that went on to play at the Division I level, including several High School All Americans and a 1st round Major League Baseball Draft Pick. There is absolutely no correlation between being on a travel team and being good. The only predictor of how good a baseball player is going to be is how hard that baseball player works. Amateur sports have become big business in the 21st century mostly because professional sports have become unimaginably big business as well. This often means the prices that “skill development programs” fetch are often times inflated way past what they are actually worth to the player. This is not to say I am against joining a club or a showcase team. But I am against players joining the wrong ones and joining them for the wrong reasons.
No Offseason? With fall right around the corner and registration for many travel teams’ “Fall Ball” programs in full swing, I caution players and parents to carefully assess their playing situation. I am not saying to not play fall baseball, as I coach fall ball and love the development that occurs over the fall months. But do your research. Know what the program includes and what the travel demands are. Most fall programs play in a league, so figure out what the league is and how good the competition is. If you are a position player, you will not improve if the league’s teams do not have enough quality pitching depth to challenge hitters over the course of a weekend double header. If you are a pitcher, the same is true if the opposition’s position players will not make you work while on the mound or your own team’s position players will not make routine plays behind you. Also, if you are a fall athlete, be committed to your fall sport. Do not risk injury or fall behind on your schoolwork because you think you have to play in a fall baseball league.
Some travel programs use the fall as a way of evaluating talent for their more competitive spring and summer teams. Be sure that is the program you want to be affiliated with come spring/summer. Find out what league the spring/summer team plays in and which tournaments the team travels to. Again, if the competition is weak, you will not improve. Sure, you want at bats and repetitions in the field, but it should be a red flag to you if you know going in that you are going to play every inning of every game by default because there is no one else on the team good enough to challenge for your spot in the line-up. Playing for a decent legion team will match you against much better competition over the course of a summer than joining a mediocre travel team.
There is no one way for you to get better, and do not let anyone tell you that there is. Never play just to play, especially in the wrong situation. There should be a purpose to everything you do, both on the field and off. Do not agonize if you have not found the right team for you. Private coaches are great for throwing you batting practice, hitting you fungos, and doing drill work with you. They can also be great mentors who can help you prepare to make the varsity team or even earn a roster spot with that great travel program you've always wanted to join. As long as you have a plan and are working hard, it’s safe to listen to Mr. Shaughnessy for once. Nobody gets overlooked.