Carry On, My Wayward Travel Parent

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By: Geoffrey T. Spaulding, travel baseball dad, arm chair philosopher

My son is currently a 13U player. In our area, travel players this age play on the 60/90 field. Actually, they get introduced to it during the fall following their 12U spring/summer season. Therefore, it’s been “big field” for almost a year now for him.

He recently had a game at a complex where there was an 8U (46/60) travel game being played adjacent to his game. As spectators of his game, my beloved bride and I were almost as close to that 8U game as the 13U field. And, it was difficult to avert our gaze from the 8U contest.

First, they were the cutest little devils ever. Next to the Puppy (Super) Bowl, there’s not many things more adorable than little guys dressed up like big leaguers. And, they did look so small. If the teams were wearing yellow jerseys instead of red (on one team) and blue (on the other team), it would have looked like a Minions convention. At first blush, I thought they were younger than eight. But, as soon as I saw it was kid-pitch, I knew it was 8U. (An observation that was later confirmed as fact.)

Secondly, it brought back memories. That’s the age when my son started playing travel ball: 8U. At the time, I don’t remember it being all cuddles and cute stuff. In fact, I seem to recall it being pretty serious and intense. Which, of course, was pretty stupid since it’s 8U baseball, after all.

When my son was an 11U player, he had an excellent coach. And, I recall chatting with the skipper one day and sharing (in hindsight) how I thought it was somewhat foolish to be playing 8U travel. He was well-traveled (no pun intended) and experienced as a player and a coach. Hearing my comment, he laughed and pointed to the 11U players practicing on the field. He then said “Trust me, when you get to 15U, then THIS will all look like play-time as well.”

Now that my son plays on “the big field” and is using “big boy” BBCOR bats, I am starting to see his point. Perspective is always relative. Sometimes you have to move away from something to get a good look at it.

Of course, when you are in the moment, your view and attitude sometimes gets amplified to a level that’s a tad out of whack.

Seeing those little guys made me remember when my son was a 9U player. He was playing on a community-based travel team run by volunteer dads. There were five “dad” coaches on the team with sons on the roster. And, yeah, you guessed it: Their sons were the starting P, C, 1B, 2B and SS on the team. All the other kids played outfield and got a token inning, here and there, at 3B. On this team, my son was a part-time right fielder, occasional (as in once in a blue moon) 3B and half the time bench-sitter.

However, in recreational baseball, my son was starting to play catcher. He had an interest in it and showed a lot of potential. (He would go on to become a standout defensive catcher. More on that later.)

I knew the 9U travel team situation was…well…it was what it was. There was no way he was ever going to catch in that situation. The manager’s son was the catcher. His best buddy and assistant coach had a son who was also a catcher. And, two of the other coaches had sons who wanted to catch at times. Good luck trying to crack that establishment. Still, I thought…MAYBE…he could POSSIBLY get some practice with this team. And, I approached the travel manager one day and said “My son likes to  catch. I know you have a bunch of catchers already. Maybe, one day, even if it’s just once, you can let him catch in batting practice. You don’t have a catcher when you throw BP. So, he wouldn’t be taking reps away from anyone. But, maybe it would be some decent experience for him? And, it would be appreciated if you would consider it.”

Well, coach sort of gave me a look and said “Yeah, I will consider it.” And, it never happened. (Again, we’re talking 9U here.)

In any event, one day (after I shared the request with his 9U travel manager) we had a recreational game and my son is catching. Some of his 9U travel teammates were at the field and came over to see him play. And, one of the travel coaches (who was a father of one of the players there) was also present. After a bit, the travel coach (referencing my son) says to me “I didn’t know he played catcher.” Hearing that, I shared with the coach the request that I made to the travel manager. In response, he said to me – staring off into the distance, without giving me the benefit of looking me in the face when saying it – “Well, everyone on our team has a PRIMARY position. And, YOUR SON’S primary position is OUTFIELDER. That’s why he plays outfielder at practice.”

Wow. My first thought was “What an equestrian sphincter!” And, my second thought was “So, you’re telling me that AT NINE YEARS OLD my son has been ordained to be an outfielder and nothing else?” (By the way, travel or no travel, at 9U, there’s not a lot happening in the outfield.)

Needless to say, we left that team after the 9U season. For 10U, my son played under an outstanding manager and he was the starting catcher on that team. That team didn’t stay together after the season. And, at 11U, my son made another team – and was the starting catcher for that aforementioned excellent coach. He was also the starting catcher on his 12U team. He is currently the starting catcher on his 13U team. And, he was the starting catcher – and youngest overall starter, period – on his Middle School team (this past spring).

Imagine that…after being told at 9U that HIS PRIMARY POSITION WOULD BE OUTFIELD. Again, 9U folks…seriously.

Ah, memories. Good times! I can jest about it now. But, at the time? Oh, boy!

Just to be clear: None of this is being shared with the goal to suggest that there’s a right or a wrong age to start playing travel baseball.

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My son started at 8U. At the time, it seemed like the prudent thing to do. In retrospect, personally, I now believe my reasoning was flawed. But, that’s me and my situation.

More so, the message is “It all seems like a big deal and major league when you’re playing little field travel. But, it still just little kids dressed up like ballplayers. Don’t lose sight of it.” And, I offer this narrative as someone who has been down the road a bit and hopes that it might be helpful to those with the younger travel players.

I know for many people – but not all! – it’s very easy to get excited and wrapped up in this stuff when your child is seven, eight, nine, ten and even eleven years old. However, trust me, as someone who has more road behind me than probably in front of me – in terms of being a travel parent – I have seen some things and can lend some perspective.

Enjoy it. And, for sure, don’t let some bad coaches and/or situations ruin it for your child (and you). But, remember that it’s youth baseball on a small field. It’s not the major leagues. It’s not college baseball. It’s not high school baseball. It’s a miniaturized version of baseball being played by children. In some cases, like 8U, real little children. And, 10U ain’t that far from 8U. Do the math. Ditto 11U.

But, I know you’re not going to listen to me. I didn’t sincerely listen to those who came before me and preached the same. It’s the nature of the beast, I suppose. It’s no different than our kids having to experience something themselves, rather than heed the advice of elders, in order to “get it.”

O.K., never mind. In the words of Jack Buck, “Go crazy folks! Go crazy!”

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