It’s been many years, decades would be the more truthful fact, since I played high school baseball. I have so many fond memories of my senior year when we won 21 straight games and came within an out of winning the state championship. There is also a vivid memory of our second day of practice. This not only happened my senior year of high school but every year I played baseball. The issue I, and everyone else on the team had, was a sore arm. This was due to the fact that the majority of us had not thrown a baseball since we hung up our cleats in July of the previous season. That’s right, we were all on a top-notch high school baseball team, and not a single one of us had played baseball for nearly eight months. The majority of athletes played multiple sports, and many were three-sport players. By now you are probably wondering what this has to do with our health. To be as uncompromisingly forthright as I can, to me it’s sickening the physical abuse we are putting our young kids through with the amount of baseball they are playing. In Forsyth County alone two promising high school pitchers have had Tommy John surgery in hopes of continuing their baseball careers. By no means am I pointing a finger at the high school coaches – by the time they get to high school, the recipe for disaster has been ongoing for some time. This falls on the parents and the parents alone. There are competitive baseball tournaments being played in March and ending in November. During this eight-month stretch parents are allowing their kids to play on Little League, travel teams, and school teams. By season’s end, some kids are playing 60-80 games. This is happening before many kids reach the age of 10!
John Smoltz, former Atlanta Braves pitcher, spent the last portion of his Hall of Fame acceptance speech talking about this issue. The following is summarized from his speech. Summer fun as he knew it is just about extinct. Travel leagues have come to dominate the summer of even grade-schoolers. Kids as young as seven are herded into travel tournaments for entire weekends. The clear carrot hanging from the travel league stick is the promise of a college scholarship. But few kids are good enough to play at the college level. And those who are end up at schools where a meaningful degree is secondary consideration. The nuttiest part of it is how it drains not just the fun out of play, but the life out of arms. Physical injury is occurring. Smoltz finished his speech by saying, “I want to encourage you, if nothing else, to know that your children’s passion to play baseball is something they can do without a competitive pitch. Every throw a kid makes today is a competitive pitch. They don’t just go outside and have fun. They’re out there competing and maxing out too hard, too early, and that’s why we’re having these problems. Please take care of those great future arms.” (At this point, everyone in the Cooperstown crowd stood and applauded)
Let me point out that up until now it may seem I am taking dead aim at the sport of baseball. I am not! Just about every sport that kids play today have some form of travel teams that extend far beyond the three to four month intended season. The hook being cast by all these organizations is, if you want to be seen by college coaches, you’ve got to be on a travel team. Now that our society has taken the bait, the money will continue to flow in and the seasons will get longer and longer.
In conclusion here’s a couple of things to ponder as you write your checks to these organizations. Only a very small amount of college athletes are awarded full scholarships. Most of these come from Division 1 schools in football and basketball. Out of the 32 first round draft picks in this year’s NFL draft, 30 played multiple sports in high school. In other words, your rare star athlete is one of God-given talent that has made it to the top of his sport by being an overall athlete, not by a year-round practice of competitive pitches, swings or kicks. This is not only true in football. Two of the best baseball players in the major leagues, Aaron Judge, 3-star athlete in high school, and Clayton Kershaw, a center on his high school football team, are all-stars without the help of travel ball.
It would be interesting to me to know the amount of money paid out by families for travel ball expenses over the number of years their child is involved. That’s every fee, meal, hotel room, gas, plane ticket, tournament ticket, apparel, and any other expense paid out. I would imagine it is close to the college money being awarded to the few that receive scholarships. There is also the lesser amount of precious family time we have with our children growing up. When there are more kids on the soccer and baseball fields on Mother’s Day, than there are at church and grandma’s eating lunch, it is a sad day in our society. Is this really where we are today?