The landscape of youth baseball and softball has changed over the years.
In years past, the only option a child had to play was at the local parks and recreation league. As the years have gone by, many parents and coaches have found another way for their kids to participate in baseball and softball by forming travel teams and participating in what is commonly known as “travel ball.”
In Cleveland, several teams travel to different places to play in weekend tournaments. Many teams play on an average of one to two tournaments a month between February and June. Some teams do play a couple of tournaments during the fall months.
The travel baseball teams in Cleveland mainly compete in the United States Specialty Sports Association (USSSA).
Spencer Holman, who is a coach on the Delta Reds 8 and under coach pitch team and the 12 and under baseball team, said travel ball has proven to be positive in more ways than one.
“They get to play in very nice facilities,” Holman said. “You have more time with the kids to work on baseball being a very technique driven sport. You have a lot more time to spend with the kids and a lot more one-on-one time to work with them on the details of the game versus playing in park and rec.”
Typically in baseball, these travel teams consist of kids that many would feel are the All-Stars of their respective recreation leagues. Several of the best players that play in the Cleveland Park Commission also play travel ball.
Holman has a 7-year-old son, Reed, playing for the Reds 8-and-under team and an 11-year-old son, Michael, playing on the Delta Reds 12-and-under team. They also both play in the Cleveland Park Commission.
“You have different levels of skill sets with the kids as well as the love for the game,” Holman said. “Some of the kids may not be as enthused about the game. Travel ball is for the kids that do it and prosper at it. They really love baseball, and they want to play and they want to get better. They want to spend the time traveling and practicing and doing those things kind of above and beyond just park and rec.”
Bill Dodd, who is a coach on the Delta Bucks 9 and under team, has two sons that play travel baseball. His youngest son Caleb plays on the Bucks and his oldest son Jacob plays on a 13-14-year-old travel team known as the Cleveland Wildcats. Caleb and Jacob also compete in the CPC.
Dodd said travel ball enables good players to learn the game.
“The travel ball team allows for a higher level of play than park commission,” Dodd said. “You’re able to push the kids into more fundamentals of the game. It’s just a faster pace, faster learning type situation. You can move the kids along faster in the learning process of playing the ball game, because I have 10 kids that are good athletes. In park commission, you might have two or three decent athletes on a team, but the other kids don’t have the ability of those two or three.”
In girls softball, many of the best players either have or are currently playing on a travel ball team.
Chris Braswell first coached the Delta Rockers youth softball team when his daughter Tori was still a child in 2002. With Tori currently going to college at Mississippi State University, he still coaches the Rockers who play 12 and under softball.
“One thing I’ve learned over the years is a lot of good life lessons come from softball,” Braswell said. “Our purpose is to help these young girls develop into better ball players. To a certain degree, we’re trying to help some of these local high school programs continue the winning traditions that they’ve had in the past.”
Travel softball teams can participate in the Amateur Softball Association (ASA), United States Fastpitch Association (USFA) and 82 Challenge. USSSA has fastpitch softball.
Braswell said travel softball has grown around the state.
“Back then, if we went to a tournament especially in the younger ages, there were eight teams in the tournament,” Braswell said. “That was a pretty good tournament. Now, there are probably 14 to 16 teams on average in most of these tournaments. Also usually, you would have to play when tournaments were available. You had to make sure you played in those or you didn’t play. We usually travel within a radius of two to three hours. In that two to three hour area, I have a choice of playing in three or four different tournaments every weekend.”
One aspect that parents and coaches always have to look at is the cost of travel. Across the country, it’s been reported that parents have spent thousands of dollars during a summer.
For teams in Cleveland, costs of travel ball can get high, but parents and coaches do what they can to make it work.
Laura Harris has a son Parker that plays on the Delta Bombers 10 and under baseball team. Her husband Jason is the head coach of the squad.
Harris said her family does what they have to do to create a budget.
“You sort of know what the costs are,” Harris said. “Our team, we start at the first of March and we put out a schedule saying this is when we’re going to play. We try to play twice a month, and we try to play one of those tournaments in Cleveland or Winona. We try not to do two out-of-town trips in a month, because we realize it’s hard on people.”
Dodd said his family has found ways to save money, especially on the food when they’re out of town.
“We pack a snack box,” Dodd said. “We’ll carry us some sandwiches and some potato chips and stuff like that. You can save yourself 40 to 50 dollars on the weekends just by carrying your own drinks and not having to buy at concession stands and other fast food places.”
Most of the time, teams in Cleveland don’t travel more than two or three hours to get to a tournament. Teams in the area have held fundraisers to cover costs such as entry fees for tournaments and other needs.
“We played in a World Series one time when they were 10 and we stayed at Orange Beach,” Holman said about the Reds team that is now playing in the 12 and under division. “That’s something we prepared for as a team and that’s something we raised money for to off-set and limit some of the costs. We do a Boston Butt cooking each year on Super Bowl weekend. There are ways in which you could do it to minimize the cost.”
Many coaches in Cleveland also coach on a volunteer basis. A vast majority of coaches are fathers of kids on the team.
Harris feels that is a positive aspect.
“Most of the coaches around here are dads, so they care about their kids,” Harris said. “We don’t let them pitch too much. We rest them, and they’re mindful of that kind of thing.”
Harris said the time traveling helps open the door for quality time with her family.
“It’s family time,” Harris said. “We’re together as a family. We go as a family. We spend our whole weekend with our kids and watching them do something that they love. My husband loves to coach. My little two, the brother and the sister, have become good friends with the siblings of the other kids’ team. They have fun and play. All the other parents and kids become like your family. We’re one big travel ball family.”
Harris said Parker has a passion for baseball.
“Parker loves baseball, loves his teammates and coaches,” Harris said. “In the times, we’ve taken a break, he’s like ‘Do we have practice today? Do we have a game?’ He’s learned how to become a good teammate. He learns how to lose and how to win.”
The chances of any athlete wanting to play in the pros or even college is very slim. One of the most important things to realize is travel ball is not a guaranteed way to the pros or even college.
“They’ll never be a college scout sitting in the stands watching a nine-year-old or a 13-year-old, it’s not going to happen,” Dodd said. “It only matters to get the foundation and get all of that set for these kids. When they hit that 16 or 17-year-old junior, senior, that’s where it’s got to come together.”
Braswell said the chance of playing in college isn’t the reason people should participate in travel ball.
“You’re going to spend as much on travel ball as you’re going to spend on college sometimes,” Braswell said. “I asked my daughter in about the ninth grade if she wanted to play college ball, and she said not really daddy and that was the end of the discussion.
“We had a Christmas or end of the year party for the team I’m coaching now, and a lot of the parents contacted the players who used to play on the old team and it was a nice surprise,” Braswell added. “The point is every one of those girls were glad to see each other. With any group of girls, you’re going to have difficulties over the years with little spats and things like that. All of those girls are mostly 20 or 21 right now and when they all got together the friendships were there.”