May 17, 2016

The Different Worlds of Youth Baseball

Reporting Texas

Joel Bonuelos, 11, of the Montopolis Little League team swings at a pitch on April 11, 2016 at Weber Field in Austin, Texas. Jack Vrtis/Reporting Texas

The Montopolis Scrappers of the South Austin Little League lived up to their name in a recent game at Weber Field near Zilker Park, coming back from an early 4-0 deficit to claim a 10-4 victory over their rival, the South Austin Strikerz. But the telling moment came on the losing side when Strikerz’ coaches awarded a game ball to one of their players.

That sportsmanlike nod, usually reserved for a winning MVP, will come as no surprise to Little League buffs who for years have valued what they see as the organization’s traditional emphasis on community building and a more relaxed attitude toward competition.

Since 1950, young Austinites have played on generations of teams like the Scrappers and the Strikerz. The South Austin Little League, Texas’s oldest organization of its kind, boasts some 240 players, ages 3 to 12, who play on 20 teams, while promising a place to young persons who wants to play.

Yet in recent years South Austin organizers, like others around the country, have faced declining enrollment numbers. That’s due in part to the growing popularity of other sports, like basketball and football, and to the limited free time both parents and children today have at their disposal, according to Chris Downs, the director of constituent communications at Little League International in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.

But that’s only part of the story. Little League participants say the decline also stems from the development of so-called travel or select teams that typically hold tryouts to “select” players with talent and whose parents’ can pay the higher costs involved. In some cases, a month of select play costs the same as an entire season of recreational ball.

Unlike Little League, select teams typically aren’t part of an all-encompassing umbrella organization, but instead participate in tournaments that local organizers set up. And while both types of play center around baseball, the attitudes brought to the game can differ sharply.

In Little League, its organizers say, it’s more about enjoying the game and forming a community, not so much on winning. In select, or travel ball, as its sometimes called, kids play more games in a more intense atmosphere. And it can cost them dramatically more money.

According to Kent Kostka, treasurer of the South Austin Little League, parents’ financial resources do not determine whether a child plays in his organization.

“It’ll be a cold day in hell before someone can’t play baseball [in the league] because of money,” he said.

If the parents can’t afford the $275 fee for the 10 to 12-year-old bracket, for example, the league will reduce the price in exchange for parents’ volunteering to cover some of the cost.

Kostka, whose son, Dashiell, 12, plays on both a select and a traditional Little League team, has noticed stark differences in attitudes and goals.

“It’s not as much about winning, it’s more about having fun” in the South Austin league, he said. “Baseball is a game that teaches you to fail… and Little League is a good place to learn that.”

Kostka, a lawyer for the University of Texas System, said that on the team of 9- and 10-year-olds he coached, only three or four kids wanted to play past the age of 10. In select, most organizations have an explicit goal of preparing participants to play in high school, college or even professional ball.

During one game, Kostka witnessed a Little League player’s response at a critical moment: he was up to bat in the last inning of a tied game with the winning run on base. But, instead of reflecting the tension of the moment, the player started moving his bat back and forth while making light saber sounds, Kostka recalled.

“You’re not going to see that in select ball,” Kostka said with a chuckle.

Nonetheless, even some staunch advocates of Little League believe there is a place for select baseball, where players receive instruction from paid coaches instead of the parent volunteers in Little League.

Paul Purcell, South Austin league president, agrees that at a certain point it’s best for the more focused baseball kids to play select ball, where the coaching tends to be better and parent-child conflict less common.

“I coached, and I enjoyed coaching, and I’ll coach my younger kids again, but at a certain level… I think the dad shouldn’t be the coach for the kid’s and the parent’s sake,” Purcell said. “I’d argue with my kid every game and every practice.”

Even though Purcell is league president, his son Peyton, 12, plays only on a select team.

“The number one negative of select ball is obviously you’ve got to pay… more,” he said.

According to Purcell, instead of the $275 fee for the entire spring season for the South Austin league, a select team costs $200 to $300 per month of season play after a down payment of $150 to $300 to cover jerseys and other basics. In addition, sometimes parents send their children to private lessons that can cost $30 to $50 per hour, he said.

Also, select teams play in baseball tournaments instead of the typical round-robin style found in recreational leagues. That means instead of playing one game Tuesday or Saturday, teams play multiple games on Saturday, and then start elimination games on Sunday. The schedule obliges parents to devote entire weekends if they want to see their kids play, which Purcell said can be difficult for some.

Downs believes Little League is about more than creating great baseball players—it’s about youth interacting and socializing with others the same age and creating community leaders for the future.

“Little League… is a leadership training program,” Downs said. “You want to try and grow these children into good, young adults who can be responsible and accountable to themselves and their communities.”

Downs thinks that select ball’s reputation for providing exposure to collegiate and professional scouts is overrated because, in Little League, you can receive just as much exposure through events like the Little League World Series, which is televised on ESPN.

“These travel and select ball teams actually charge you sometimes thousands of dollars to participate on a team with the promise that you are going to be seen by a scout… with no guarantee of placement,” Downs said. “Where Little League provides that same… opportunity at no cost to the player and no cost to the family.”