Baseball and Class

by Eno Sarris

Baseball is a rich man’s game. Or so goes the growing feeling among the amateur class.

There’s equipment to buy — at the very least, a glove, a bat, and shoes — in order to play from day one. But that’s not such a big deal. You still need a soccer ball and shoes, or a basketball and shoes, and really the only sport you could ply barefoot is perhaps cross country running (watch for sticks and stones). Well, in my childhood in Jamaica I played plenty of barefoot soccer, but my busted, weak ankles would probably tell you that’s not a sustainable idea.

But that’s not why baseball is becoming widely considered the game for the children of wealthy. It’s more about the way baseball players become noticed by college programs. Because college programs don’t have the budgets of professional teams, they don’t really have the ability to scout widely. Players from established high school programs get the most looks. A few prep programs dominate the field. If you aren’t in one of those schools, your way into the public eye is well-established: travel teams.

These summer teams travel and function as all-star teams. They pit the best players from different regions against each other, and colleges get the benefit. But leagues cost money, and traveling isn’t free. So most of these fees are passed on to the parents, and they add up. They really add up. Check out a summary of how quickly they can add up, from a youth travel team coach near Chicago:

Youth Travel Baseball is a tough business and it is a business. Each family involved in each team is a part of that business. The average cost per family to participate in Travel Baseball is between $1000 and $1500 per year-not including a $100 tank of gas each weekend, snacks, drinks, $150 hotel stays, $180 dented bats, $100 lost or wet gloves, $80 Nike’s, and other unnamed or unexpected expenses. Each family can easily invest $3000 or more in a Travel team baseball season. Each family makes an investment in that business and expects a product in return for that investment.

Many Travel teams form at age eight (8) and remain together for years. They continually add/eliminate players over time and in most cases it takes years to develop a Championship Caliber team. Each year coaches evaluate the talent they have, where they have needs, and try to recruit players to fulfill or supplement those needs. The longer these players stay together, the better the teams become, and the better the product each parent can expect.

Ouch. Not too many families have an extra $3000 sitting around to help advance their young child’s dream of playing pro baseball. The fees for each of these leagues is a big deal, and it does contribute to the idea that class is now inextricably intertwined with amateur baseball in America today. A recent post on Minor League Ball, a popular site dedicated to minor league prospects, inspired a healthy discussion, but most seemed to agree that there was a problem here.

Obviously, First Base Foundation agrees that league fees can get expensive. That’s why the Warriors summer teams have voluntary fees. That’s why we work to raise money to help those with less get more exposure, and more tutelage. We have a former professional hitting coach on the board that can provide a hitting lesson. We do workshops. We bring smart college, junior-college, and former professional coaches in contact with young people that need leadership. It’s all part of our mission.

The beauty of sports is that we can all play, or at least that’s the idea. And beyond that, the world of athletics is supposed to be a meritocracy — if you can play, you can play, and you will continue to play, all the way to the top. Making youth travel baseball so expensive begins to eat away at both of these foundations of sports. We’re doing our best to stem the tide.