The Rhode Island Baseball Community Speaks – Can A Rec Baseball Player Make It Up The Ladder Without Travel Ball?

Before I get to the responses by the Rhode Island Baseball Community, I wanted to take a quick detour and acknowledge Classical High School’s and current Houston Astros Jeremy Peña, who became the first Rhode Island High School alum to record a base hit in a World Series game in over 40 years. The last one to do it? La Salle Academy’s Davey Lopes, Los Angeles Dodgers, recorded a hit in the 1981 World Series against the New York Yankees. Technically, Paul Konerko, Chicago White Sox in 2005 (Baseball Reference shows him born in Providence, RI) was the last Rhode Islander to record a hit in a World Series. I looked up the stats for St Raphael Academy’s Chris Iannetta thinking he may have recorded a hit in the 2007 WS vs the Boston Red Sox, but Iannetta did not play in that series. Fun fact…Lopes’ teammate on the 1981 LA Dodgers is the current Houston Astros Manager, Dusty Baker. So, Peña goes in the record books as the latest Rhode Island High School player to record a hit, start at shortstop, score a run, record an out, etc. etc. in a World Series game. Wow, what a season for Jeremy!!!

Ok, let’s get to some of the amazing responses I received during this weeklong survey of the Rhode Island Baseball Community. The question asked was – Can an above average rec baseball player, who only plays Little League, Cal Ripken, Babe Ruth, American Legion make it up the baseball ladder without playing travel, showcase, AAU level baseball? Can a player just play for their local league, their local high school or catholic school and still get to the heights of competition like collegiate or even professional leagues? Or do players need showcase events, travel tournament exposure to gain that edge in being recruited to those coveted D1, D2, D3 collegiate baseball programs? Here are the responses I received on social media and via this website:

It is certainly possible for a talented player to play in college without ever playing on a travel ball team.  The best form of support would be the high school coach who can reach out and advocate for that player.  The Juco (Junior College) route is very common(look at CCRI which has produced many players who went on to professional baseball or to play at 4 year colleges).  Unfortunately travel ball and showcase camps are primarily about money today despite all the marketing and social media activity. Calling a team “elite”, “select” or “showcase” means nothing regardless of how many weekend tournaments they win.  Dads are either running organizations or coaching teams with a vested interest in their child and most parents don’t have enough knowledge of the game to make informed decisions on what’s best for their son, so they simply rely on the travel team coaches to guide them.  The best benefit of travel ball is the additional training that comes with the significant cost. College coaches know that travel ball organizations over market their players and teams and certainly professional scouts are aware as well.  They rely on feedback from the high school coach primarily.   For those who are good enough, there will be opportunities. 

Any dedicated player can absolutely make it. Not every family can afford playing AAU or attend the best tournaments or camps. I am of the belief that the dedication is with the athlete not where they play. I don’t believe there is one set blueprint.

I have 2 son’s who play baseball.  I have seen such a big change in baseball in just a short period of time. I use to think it was possible, but lately I think it’s very highly unlikely in this day in age of the current baseball culture. When my oldest played recreational baseball and Babe Ruth it was much more competitive and so many kids played it. His rec leagues use to have at least 5 or 6 teams that had great players and the games were very competitive and fun to watch. Now my younger son’s rec leagues are lucky if they get enough kids to make 2 or more teams. Many times they are trying to merge towns to be able to play more games. His Babe Ruth team this fall only was able to make 1 team never have we seen this.  Also the talent in the rec leagues are not the greatest. Most kids have never played the game and they games are far from being at any competitive level.  So as a good kid with talent it would be hard for them to get in good plays or good hits against someone who has never pitched before. It would be very hard to showcase your talent, learn and grow when you don’t have any competitive type games. No matter how good a player you are baseball is a team sport and you need your team behind you. No pitcher is going to strike everyone out. Having players who can make the plays for you helps as a pitcher. No matter how good a hitter you are if you don’t have others on your team that can hit also your just going to get stranded on base every time. That’s even if you are ae to hit the ball most times you just get walked, cause they have never pitched. If you do have kids on the team that know how to pitch they are either being held back from pitching on any rec team  because they are saving themselves for their AAU teams.  It seems like all the the basic AAU teams are like the new rec teams. Anyone and everyone is making a team. Back a few years ago only the best kids made the AAU teams. Now there is just so many teams out there everyone makes one. So now you could be on a not so great AAU team with kids who are not serious about baseball and just play for fun.  Due to this they have developed these Super teams and All tournament teams to get the better kids who are truly serious about baseball. It’s a big business and it’s taking away from the poor rec teams. At the rate it’s going I feel there may not be any rec teams in the future to get kids interested in the sport and its very sad. So I really feel it’s getting harder and harder almost impossible for the good kid to make it up the ladder without playing travel baseball. 

Anything ‘can’ happen but it’s nowhere near as likely. Travel teams compete at the highest level and hitters see the best competition game in game out. You only get better playing better competition and these days that is where they are.

Most certainly he can. In my opinion, if you’re good enough, they will find you. While my son does play aau as well as rec, the purpose of him playing aau was to provide a means of healthy competition as more and more players leave rec baseball behind for the allure of travel baseball. Sadly, burnout and injuries in youth athletes is becoming more and more common as they all try to gain advantage. And that mentality is crossing over into rec sports which are supposed to be more about developmental foundations and life lessons. Its become more about winning than providing kids with a good experience. To be quite honest my son doesn’t care if he wins or loses or who is better than him, as long as he is better than he was yesterday. We need to foster that growth mentality among our younger players. But speaking of the two fictional players you had mentioned, one likely had thousands of dollars spent on his development just to play at that level. Whereas the other is just as good, with minimal training and likely isn’t dealing with things like repetitive motion injuries and things of that sort. I’d like to think that the player who didn’t partake in travel would have an even better shot as he clearly has raw talent. That would catch my eye if I was a scout. With a teams player development resources available to him, in the end he would likely outperform the other kid who may already be on the decline. Don’t get me wrong, we love travel ball, but it takes a toll on a young growing body when they’re playing 6 games in a week with one practice because they’re dual rostering both rec and aau.

I think the increased obsession with AAU sports at younger ages has been a detriment to local leagues and young athletes in general. It’s encouraging kids to specialize in one sport too young due to the time commitment and the fact that AAU seasons tend to overlap with other sports.

Another question is.. how many players don’t make it to high school or college BECAUSE they play club baseball too soon and get burnt out or have less poor experiences? Over 70% of kids who play baseball at 10 are done by age 13….think about that. Kids are out of the game before they even hit puberty and you can’t tell me that a big % of those is the money crazed club programs that do not meet kids where their cleats are developmentally both as players and as people.

Depends also on his high school program. The state and what division or class he plays in. Reality is that all the AAU players play at some high school. If they are good enough they can make it.

Yes! Travel baseball is over rated. It all comes down to a few things. Is he gifted or has tools, does he have passion, is he coachable and is he surrounded by good baseball people. I have coached and instructed many players who nobody gave them a chance to play college baseball. Most of these kids never played travel baseball. But they played at the college level. It’s really about developing skills, building good character and enjoying playing. Travel ball and showcases are designed to make money. I see so many teams with bad coaching and players who don’t know how to play. It’s sad!

If Jones gets great grades in school and excels in High School baseball, he will get a chance to play in college. Once in college, he will then have access to facilities, conditioning, and coaching that will help him reach his maximum potential. Jones can make it but he will have a much harder path than a player who trains, participates, and gains exposure in a travel program. We have colleges reaching out to players starting in 9th grade who only got exposed because of their level of play at a showcase or high level regional tournament. One of the main factors in a baseball players future is his grades. There are limited scholarships and financial aid opportunities for collegiate baseball teams. If a players has great grades coaches will help get financial aid and grants for their academics which decreases the amount of baseball scholarships to give out to fill a great roster. They also consider whether the player will be able to be a good student while independently living at school in order to stay eligible to play. If the player can’t get good grades in high school, the coaches are usually not confident that they will keep up in college. There are late bloomers in baseball all the time who get to the next level and then excel as they grow in size or with more resources. Just like an undersized player may have a more difficult path so would a player with less resources. Both can still make it in this game.

Very very difficult to make it, you know why? Because he needs to compete at a highest level every year and that’s where the kid will find the highest level of competition and training, so I would say not impossible but very very difficult.

From what I’ve seen, the position, makes a significant difference. A pitcher would have a much easier time making it up the ladder. Pretty much every college coach or pro scout that I’ve talked to (and we’re talking about a handful at every start), are not really interested in his stats vs. the competition. They really are just interested in what his stuff looks like. How hard he throws, his command, his break on his curve, his ability to change speeds etc. They rarely have any interest in how many wins or who he has played against. But I believe a positional player would have a much harder time differentiating himself. Especially if your 1a or 1b on your high school team in such a small state. You would probably need to be 1a or 1b in the state to get the attention needed without playing for teams that play outside of RI.

Without revealing names, I will acknowledge that the responses were from baseball parents, both rec and travel coaches, elite players who played at a very high level, and concerned Rhode Island Baseball Community members. For me personally, I am an optimist at heart so I believe any one with talent and character and effort and determination can move up the ladder in medicine, law, education, sports, and life. Does it help to have a boost now and then? Sure it is. Does it help Mr. Parker that he gets additional repetitions in the batting cage at his father’s baseball academy while Mr. Jones is finishing up the dishes at Newport Creamery? I suppose it does. However, while Mr. Jones is doing the dishes, he is mentally preparing for the big time matchup vs Hendricken or Cranston West or Tiverton or Rogers #1 starter and thinking to himself, “if he throws me a curveball on the first pitch, I’m taking him DOWNTOWN!!!”

As a baseball fan, I root for the Mr. Jones and the Mr. Parkers of the Rhode Island Baseball Community. And want to thank everyone who took the time to write in their thoughts on this subject. Have an amazing day everyone!!!

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