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In today’s youth baseball universe, parents most likely will not go more than a couple of seasons before hearing the term travel ball, or club ball. This advanced level of competition takes young players away from their traditional locally based youth baseball leagues, and gets them out on the road.
While most parents would be happy to connect their player with an established team or manager, those who know how to coach might wonder how to start a travel baseball team themselves. Anyone can start one, really; the big question is who can maintain one.
Before we get into the details of managing such an endeavor, let’s investigate exactly what is a travel baseball team, and what the job entails. Then we’ll conclude with our best knowledge of a step-by-step process to start one up, and maybe maintain it.
A “travel” baseball team is just as the name implies: a team that does not stay in a single place. As in, a team that is not limited to the fields of an organized youth baseball league, like those affiliated with Little League or PONY Baseball.
Travel baseball teams can transport to other cities, elsewhere in the state, or even out of state to play games. They are not limited by a schedule over a set period of time, nor in who they play against.
The main difference between organized league youth baseball play and that of travel baseball teams is simple: the prioritization of winning. Travel ball teams are built to win or at least compete well against the best teams possible; the goal of Little League is for kids to have fun and learn the game along with other lessons for life.
Travel baseball players and teams are far more competitive than recreational league teams.
(Note: Parents new to youth baseball should know that travel baseball can go by other names, like club ball, select baseball, premier, elite, etc. ~ though the latter terms are more associated with youth soccer.)
Travel baseball teams are private entities onto their own, each a youth sports organization with intent to seek and secure play against other similarly composed teams.
Travel teams are like all-star teams for regular youth baseball leagues, only on a more permanent basis. Travel team players are not elected by other players or coaches in the league; travel team players are recruited, to participate in competition outside of the league.
Some travel teams are created just for the off-season, like for winter ball, or what some call “fall ball.” But mostly, when people mention travel ball, they refer to teams organized and managed to play in high-level tournaments in their region, elsewhere in the state, or even out of state.
Some of these tournaments might be affiliated with national youth baseball organizations, like the United States Specialty Sports Association (USSSA), but not all of them.
Many are just privately arranged competitions organized by coaches and parents to help improve the skills of top-level players, and also to perhaps attract the attention of scouts for college baseball programs.
Our Insight into How to Start a Travel Baseball Team
Anyone can start a travel baseball team. Just make a list of players you’d like on your team, and start calling parents to gauge their interest.
However, it is wise to know beforehand what it all entails, such as where the team may practice and play (most recreational youth baseball leagues forbid travel teams from using their facilities; a reason is, travel ball is accused of “stealing” the best players from the rec leagues).
Not all parents will be keen on the idea. Some will be content to let their player continue working up through the youth league, hopeful that the regular and all star seasons might be enough to get their child noticed.
Many parents of players who clearly outshine their colleagues on the field want more for their player. Those parents will pick up the phone and start asking questions.
So let’s assume you just decided to create your own travel baseball team. We suggest first writing out a list of what you will need, such as:
- Team name and age level to be played (some young travel teams “play up,” or against teams of older kids)
- Team logo and colors
- Practice fields and facilities (including private batting cages)
- Costs of tournaments, travel, uniforms
- Who will help as coaches
- Team mom (could be the very most important position to fill)
With that ready, make a list of the players you want to recruit. They can come from any source: a team you already managed in rec ball, players you played against and admired, kids totally new to the game, or even players from other leagues.
Travel teams will need at least 12, if not 14 or 15 players as more players reduces the overall cost of traveling, plus most tournaments are on weekends and players can’t make every game for a variety of reasons. (A caveat of carrying too many paying players is managing gripes for players who sit on the bench too often).
You will have to write out all the positions you need filled, to make sure you don’t end up with 6 first basemen and no catchers. Start with a couple of good pitchers, then a catcher, and fill in the field from there.
Be prepared to answer a lot of questions from parents, and to have a good idea on the initial cost. For instance, a team manager might assign $800 or $1,000 per player to be on the team, to cover a lot of the expenses noted above (namely uniforms and tourney registration fees).
Once enough players have signed up, a vital moment for a new travel baseball coach is the first team meeting (more on this below). This is where players and parents get to meet each other, and, perhaps most importantly, the manager gets to explain why the team was formed, and expectations.
With the roster formed, managers will need to get their team practicing and playing. It is very recommended that new travel baseball team managers get to know a couple or more existing travel ball team managers, to tap their mind for ideas and to ask questions.
Those other managers, even if arch rivals, can help much in choosing which tournaments to sign up for. Some tournaments will carry strong name recognition, while others might have a solid word-of-mouth following from coaches. Still others might have a reputation for attracting college scouts.
These are very important things to know for a travel baseball team manager.
Another big difference between travel baseball and recreational league baseball is schedule. Rec League plays games in a predetermined amount of time, between the same group of teams, usually 4 or 6 of them.
Not so with travel ball teams, which might see the same teams more than once but most often will run up against teams they’ve never seen before, or even heard of! You might sign up for a tournament in the town next door, and get a first game against a team from another state. It happens.
With the roster and schedule set, it’s time to get to practices and tuning up the team for its travel play. Aside from securing practice fields and hosting practices, a good travel ball manager will build a network of other managers to arrange practice/scrimmage games against.
It is very important to play a few scrimmages before going into tournament play, to learn your team’s weak points and areas in need of improvement.
Tom McLain, a veteran Southern California manager of both recreation and travel baseball teams dating back to 2005, as well as an umpire at various levels, offers the following guidance for that all-important first meeting:
“After selecting the right parents, we brought the boys together to formally meet. I asked them to introduce themselves as I did through all my coaching years in baseball, softball and football. My opening is to loosen them up, get friendly with each other, and to get to know a few tidbits about each of them.”
McLain went on to emphasize the importance of communication with parents and players, including key rules which should be introduced from the start. He provided some things to consider:
- 12 players, 24 parents, many grandparents, some stepparents, aunts, uncles, siblings and cousins to deal with, must be managed out the gate
- Player name, which school attending, little tidbit like favorite food or favorite show
- Each season we added more drills to keep it fresh and also not to overwhelm
- Each practice on field or in cage 2 hours maximum
Note that, as with recreational ball, managing the parents can be as important as managing the kids ~ if not more so.
“I learned that out-of-control parents turn a team topsy-turvy,” McLain said. To maintain season to season, he has created a document to provide to parents from the beginning, which has been modified over the years to include:
- Being late to practice/game, importance and consequences
- No eating in the dugout
- No coaching from the bleachers; only encouragement.
- Parents not allowed in dugout during play and practices
Running a travel baseball team can be much like managing a recreational league baseball team. You deal with kids of close but not exact ages, a great variety of parents, field challenges, and more.
Tack onto all that the responsibilities of finding games and tournaments; maintaining the roster, since players quit on travel teams more often than rec ball teams; and managing costs. Financial management is important for managers of travel baseball teams.
Plus, remember that travel baseball is about winning. If a player is hurting the team’s success, good travel ball managers will have backup players in line to take over. One of the hardest things to do in running a travel team is telling a parent that their kid is being replaced.
But welcome to the world of travel ball, where winning is of the utmost importance!
Note that all the travel can be energy-consuming, as well as costly, considering the high cost of gas nowadays. Plus there’s all the gear, namely catcher’s gear and items carried around for pre-game like hitting nets and extra balls. Most longtime travel ball coaches have a car chosen specifically for baseball, like a truck with a roomy cab for storage or lugging passengers to games.
- Help boost your players’ skill by introducing him or her to more advanced competition
- Get to help and watch players advance in their fledgling baseball careers
- Introduction to high-level youth baseball leaders, and maybe even college managers or recruiters
- Involvement with kids who will go on to succeed at the highest levels
- Parents can be demanding since they are paying a lot more for their kids to play compared with rec ball; and losing too often surely will generate complaints
- The unknown: Quality of the tournaments going in; umpiring; unforeseen costs; accidents; emergencies (e.g. a car not starting in the morning so a key player might be late)
- Sometimes thankless job
All things considered, McLain found managing travel baseball teams greatly rewarding, especially afterward watching players grow into college players and graduates, and even minor-league baseball players.
“When I see these kids I am treated with respect and love,” McLain said. “I’m happy to have had a meaning in their lives.”
Estimates for how much it costs parents to have a player involved with a travel team can vary, from as little as $200 a month, to up to $11,000 annually for the very serious players at advanced levels. That’s right: the cost of playing travel baseball could exceed $1,000 a month.
Quick Checklist to Start a Travel Baseball Team
For PDF Version can be downloaded: Here
____ Make a list of players’ desired
____ Contact parents
____ Finalize roster
____ Create a contact list to share with all; perhaps include names and addresses of practice locations
____ Set first team meeting
___ Find devoted Team Mom (or Team Moms)! Get help with multiple duties by breaking up tasks; and let them handle as much of the off-the-field needs as possible.
____ Work with players to choose a uniform style, logo, and team colors
____ Get parental buy-in on all this, from uniforms to tournament fees, and up-front costs
____ Collect parent payments on time
____ Sign up for tournaments
____ Manage player injuries, parent gripes
____ Constantly network with other managers, and officials for tournaments and colleges
____ Continually host tryouts, perhaps away from team practices, and be prepared to replace players who move away or lose interest
____ Add fun: Try to schedule team barbecues, swim parties, sleep-overs, and things for dads like golf or poker games. Consider big events, like a team visit to a major amusement park, as an incentive for winning a key tournament
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