Today’s youth baseball players have any number of outlets to play the game we all love. Options may include Little League, Cal Ripken, Babe Ruth, American Legion, Pony League, etc. In recent years, the baseball world has seen a proliferation of programs in the AAU or “travel” baseball spheres.

Once primarily the province of elite baseball players only, “pay to play” (PTP) baseball has become accessible to players of much broader talent and age ranges (with some programs starting teams for players as young as seven years old). Is PTP baseball right for you, your player (and your family)? That depends on a whole host of factors and, in great measure, on your and your player’s expectations. What might be a fantastic experience for one, could be seen as frustrating and a waste of time, energy and resources for another. So, before you write that check, ChangeUp wanted to offer some food for thought (since we’ve experienced some of the ups and downs of the process through our own players).

The Good

Baseball is a challenging, difficult sport. And, generally, the more practice and game reps you get, and the better the instruction you receive, the better your chances of succeeding (however you measure success). So, all things being equal, the player who participates in a PTP program and who receives quality coaching and additional game experience will have a leg up on the player who does not. This is especially true when the competition faced in practice and on the field is strong and players have to perform at their best to compete (although, note the caveat above about broader ranges of talent now participating in PTP programs).

With pitching in particular, quality coaching in a reputable PTP program can be a game-changer (a topic obviously near and dear to our hearts at ChangeUp). Those benefits will be realized in the off-season in the form of controlled, rational practice regimens, age-appropriate strength and conditioning programs, instruction in the mental aspects of pitching, and purposeful development of the whole player. Those benefits will be further realized in-season through live pitching opportunities (in low and high pressure situations), quality feedback on performance, education on arm care (both pre- and post-game) and thoughtful deployment of your player with an eye towards rational and appropriate pitch counts based on his or her level, age, and physical make-up.

The Bad

There are many reputable PTP programs and coaches out there. Unfortunately, there are some folks now in the industry for the wrong reasons (often profit- or ego-driven). There are programs and coaches out there who abuse players through overuse and excessive pitch counts, take your check and then bury your player on the bench, or whose sole focus is collecting trophies despite the negative impacts on players. When dealing with these types, your player will not only not receive the benefits you are paying to receive, he or she could come away from the experience damaged (physically or mentally) and/or with a greatly diminished love for the game. There are a surprising number of these people out there who get away with this behavior for long stretches. While their bad acts eventually catch up with them, you want to make sure your player doesn’t end up as the cautionary tale future parents point towards when they go elsewhere.

How Do You Know?

With such important decisions (whether to play PTP baseball, and with which program), what is a parent to do? How do you avoid the disappointment and potential harm of a negative PTP experience? Other than in the cases of the truly bad programs/people, there probably isn’t one “right” answer. Whether a particular PTP program is a good fit will depend on what you and your player expect to get out of the experience. But, there are some questions you should ask yourselves and the programs you interview. And, you should “interview” multiple programs to find the best fit. Compare and contrast what they offer. You’re looking at potentially significant investments of time, energy and resources - let them earn your business. If they can’t provide satisfactory answers, move on.

The first step is to be brutally honest with yourselves about your player and about his/her potential. We’re not saying to not pursue a PTP experience or not to aim high. But, it is important to level-set your expectations based on where your player is starting and the reasonably possible outcomes. Some players are naturally quicker, bigger, faster, stronger . . . . enter any adjective you like. In some cases, natural advantages can be equaled or even overcome through hard work. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case (not every story has a Disney ending with the underdog overcoming all odds and winning the World Series). Be realistic about where your athlete is today, what it would take to get where he/she wants to be and whether your athlete (and you) are willing to commit to that path (not every athlete is, or should be, that focused).

One you’ve done a critical evaluation of your player (and, don’t be afraid to seek input from current coaches or others whose opinions you trust), the next step is to look outwards at the potential programs. Some considerations:

  • How does the program approach player health and safety? What is the program’s approach to monitoring and tracking pitch counts? What is the program’s history of injuries (in particular, overuse injuries from pitching or excessive pitch counts)?
  • Once you know your goals, consider the program’s history of helping others reach that type of goal. Have the players in the program gone on to success in little league, high school or other venues? What is the program’s record of players going on to play college baseball? And, was it because of, or in spite of, the PTP program?
  • How many players will the team carry? How much playing time will your player get? If you’re in it for game-speed reps, a seat on the bench isn’t going to satisfy you.
  • How will playing time be determined? Is it merit-based? Or, does the program make playing time commitments to attract new players, and divide what’s left amongst those who were already on the team?
  • Does the program develop its own players? Or, does the program recruit players developed by other programs? There’s a big difference, so don’t get hung up on trophies on the wall or win/loss records if the program has had on-the-field success using players developed by other programs.
  • Look through the glitz of expensive marketing and explore the substance of the coaches and program organizers. The program with the best “swag” may not help your player reach his or her goals.
  • Following the crowd may not be the best for your player. Just because a PTP program is popular amongst your player’s peers doesn’t mean it’s the right fit for your player. If your player’s goal is to catch or overtake peers, doing the exact same things as those peers may not be the best course (think about being in traffic – if you want to pass the guy in front of you, staying in the same lane as him isn’t going to do anything for you). Sometimes the path less traveled (i.e., the less “popular” PTP program) leads to success.
  • How much travel is involved? How many out-of-state tournaments will the team attend? With travel can come greater exposure and better competition. But, travel can also be expensive. Factor in hotel, airfare, meals out, etc. The cost of attending out of state tournaments can double or even triple the cost of your PTP experience. Ask up front, and make sure the team’s travel plans work for you before you accept that roster spot.
  • Once you understand the expectations of the program, be prepared to commit to them.

These are just some of the questions you should ask of yourselves and the programs under consideration. Quality PTP programs are happy to answer these types of inquiries. The best programs and coaches want players and families who come into the process with their eyes wide open. So, figure out what you and your player want, and then determine which (if any) PTP program can help you get there.

Finally, some purely gratuitous advice – enjoy the ride. Not every player can be Mike Trout. But, every player can have a positive, life-changing experience playing this great sport. You may not realize it when it happens, but someday your player will walk off the diamond for the last time as a player. Enjoy every game, every car trip to and from a field, and every game of catch in the backyard. It goes fast!