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The strong reactions online to my recent examination of how private “travel” baseball clubs are replacing nonprofit, volunteer-based leagues suggests that youth baseball is in a crisis that might require radical reform.
“I’ve parented, coached, and umpired at every level from t-ball to college-showcase/travel ball—in urban, suburban, and rural settings—and it all rings true,” wrote Jeff Uphoff on Twitter, referring to my America article.
Parents are frustrated at having to pay thousands of dollars a year to private club owners, and the result is fewer children playing baseball. “Travel ball has been a pox on the sport,” tweeted Dan McClinton.
This is a shame, because a lot of Americans still love baseball. Recently, I met with Casey Cole and Tito Serrano, two Franciscan friars who have resolved to visit all 30 Major League Baseball stadiums this summer.
“St. Francis said to go where the people are,” Father Cole told me. “In America in the summer, that’s baseball games.” But Father Serrano noted that “at ballgames, you don’t meet that many people who’ve actually played baseball.”
Ten-year-old Nathan Weaver in Limestone, W.Va., is enjoying his town’s Little League season, said David Weaver, his father. The fee for the season is around $100, and the players’ dads are coaching. “When I grew up, my dad didn’t even believe in Little League,” said David. “He thought that kids should be out there with a stick and a rock.”
But the Weavers know that it won’t last forever. The better players on Nathan’s team are headed for travel teams. Even in small-town West Virginia, the private sports economy is taking over. There’s a new complex where young athletes can train—and spend money.
As the elder Mr. Weaver pointed out, that’s not the worst form of economic development for a community. And there are plenty of volunteer-based leagues where the environment is far from idyllic. “I’ve noted a contentious vibe between coaching staffs in some of my 6-year-old’s games,” said a friend of mine who is a head college baseball coach. “And there are some [private] clubs that do a really nice job.”
But overall, the declining interest in recreational youth baseball suggests that it’s time for some changes not only to the structure, but to the game itself, since that’s what will attract children in the first place. (Major League Baseball, which has been struggling to retain fans, has been implementing reforms of its own.)
The key is fostering love. Our children should play baseball because they love it, because it offers a safe, stimulating and fun place to play, and not because Mom or Dad is making them play. “The first experience needs to be fun,” said Amos Huron, executive director of the Anderson Monarchs, which runs baseball teams for over 200 children in Philadelphia. “Baseball needs to make a good first impression.”
In that spirit, here are nine ideas for helping young people fall in love with baseball:
1. Nonprofit clubs on public fields. The United States could take a lesson from Europe, where nonprofit clubs oversee most sports and playing fields are typically open to the public. Parents pay an annual fee of a few hundred dollars, pricier than Little League but much less than privatized sports clubs, since owners are not siphoning profits off the top.
2. Payment for coaches. Little League Baseball, which did not return a request for comment, has had a longstanding rule against paying coaches, but there’s nothing so wrong with the practice. Baseball is a difficult, complicated sport. You wouldn’t expect free violin lessons, would you?
3. Smaller teams. The structure of all-volunteer coaching staffs leading teams of 12 to 14 kids for 15 games a season might be outdated. “Youth baseball games have become too long, slow and boring,” says David Klein, a California entrepreneur who runs a youth baseball organization called Speedball. In Speedball, teams have four or five players, and the rules are modified to keep the game moving. Speedball is a for-profit company, with seasonal fees over $1,000. But Mr. Klein says he offers scholarships, and his innovations should be an inspiration to all baseball organizers. “We create an experience that kids love,” he says.
4. A ban on walks. The scourge of any youth baseball game is pitchers struggling to throw strikes while 25 other kids just stand around and watch. Youth baseball coaches and organizers need to legislate against this. They could institute a rule mandating an easy-to-hit lob from a coach to a batter after four balls, or use a machine to throw strikes. In any case, there’s no reason walks should be a part of youth baseball.
5. A “two strikes and you’re out” rule. Ideally, a baseball game should have a rhythm, a quickness, where the ball is always moving. One way to do that is to establish the imperative of swinging at almost every pitch and putting balls in play faster by allowing only two strikes before an out. It would be better to have coaches lob balls and enable contact on every pitch than to give children the option of standing there watching pitches.
6. Softer or smaller balls. One reason kids get scared away from baseball is the ball itself. The little white rock can be a menacing weapon. There have been some calls for smaller baseballs for younger leagues, in the same way that basketballs are adjusted for different ages. It’s worth trying.
7. Coaches as catchers. The objective of every youth baseball game should be a steady stream of balls put into play that force action on the field. Organizers should fix the weakest links. Many youth leagues work with coaches pitching. So why not have coaches catch as well? When I have tried this, it has given the pitcher confidence to throw strikes, has eliminated passed balls that slow down the game and has set a faster tempo.
8. Playing five-on-five with three bases. Baseball suffers from the perception that you need 18 players to have a game. There is no reason you can’t play five-on-five with two or three bases, to cite the example of “BeeBall,” a recent experiment invented by the Dutch Baseball Federation. The traditionalists will groan, but baseball became America’s national sport by changing rule after rule to add excitement and tension.
9. Playing catch. Bring back catch-playing as a fundamental unit of social interaction. It can happen everywhere from schools and playgrounds to backyards and corporate team-building venues. There will be no more youth baseball of any kind in America unless kids learn to play catch. Give every schoolchild a glove and set aside 15 minutes in the playground every day to throw the ball back and forth. John Thorn, a historian of Major League Baseball, likes to say that this is the soul of baseball: “Your hand and the ball it grips become one, and you send a piece of yourself into the ether, confident that it will find its mark and be returned.”
Whatever happens with youth baseball, we can be sure that it will look different from our idealized version of childhood athletics. But in every community, people still have a choice about how to oversee their children’s play. And if you care about passing on baseball to your children, I have an answer that is also a beginning: Go play catch.