Youth baseball in area becomes big business
The innocence of organized youth baseball in Western Pennsylvania is being picked off.
Once a simplistic rite of passage, community in-house leagues are being threatened by an emphasis on elite all-star travel teams and specialty academies designed to expose children to the best instruction and toughest competition, with sights affixed to one day playing collegiately and professionally.
Youth baseball has become big business.
Participation in Little League and PONY baseball is down, according to local league administrators, while travel teams are expanding, up dramatically during the past five years.
Statewide, Little League Baseball — which hosts its World Series championship game today in Williamsport — has seen a 21 percent dip in participation among 10- to 12-year-olds during the past decade, according to organization statistics.
The numbers among teenagers also have dropped: 19 percent among 13- and 14-year-olds, and 48 percent among 15- and 16-year-olds. Washington County-based PONY Baseball — which concluded its 10-team, 150-player PONY World Series last weekend — is losing "an average of about one team a league" per year at the PONY, Colt and Palomino levels because players choose to play travel ball, PONY president Abe Key said.
Green Tree Athletic Association junior commissioner Hal Minford said he had to call six boys and "convince them to play baseball this year" to field three teams for his in-house league, which costs $55 per player and abides by Little League rules.
"Some communities are driven at the 9- and 10-year-old level by winning instead of developing the players and going out and having fun," said Minford, whose sons are 7 and 10. "The kids are playing because their friends are playing. A lot of it has to do with coaching. They're pitching 9- and 10-year old kids six innings a day. They're throwing curveballs already. It's not about the kids. It's about winning. And they're taking the fun out of it.
"It's become a business of making money at the expense of the fun of the game."
'Convince them to play'
While local in-house leagues struggle to keep pace with travel teams, eastern Pennsylvania is experiencing a thriving Little League scene, said Doug Talmadge, administrator for Little League District 26 covering much of Westmoreland and part of Allegheny counties.
"What I think is going on around here is the Pirates haven't won for 18 years. The reason why the kids aren't playing baseball like they used to, I don't contribute that to TV and video games. I attribute that to the Pirates," Talmadge said. "I believe all the kids, once this baseball in Western Pennsylvania turns around and the Pirates start winning, you'll see kids start playing baseball again."
Although Little League Baseball has 32 districts statewide, only six cater to southwestern Pennsylvania. New districts have developed primarily around Philadelphia, an increase likely related to the Phillies' winning the World Series in 2008, the National League pennant in '09 and East Division title last year, Talmadge said.
Even as he struggles with losing teams, PONY's Key said the sport is as healthy as ever in Pirates country, though he could not provide statistics to back that claim.
If there was a decrease in overall participation, Key said, it was following the baseball strike that canceled the 1994 World Series and delayed the start of the following season.
"I'd say after the strike, we noticed a decline in the younger age groups' participation," Key said. "Who's making the decision on 4-, 5- and 6-year-olds to play• Parents. There was a little bit of backlash on baseball, and parents kept them away. But I think that's sort of come and gone."
'It's more exciting'
Some parents believe travel teams are the only way to keep their children engaged.
Renae King of Irwin watched her son, Cody, lose interest in baseball around age 11 because of boredom in Little League play with smaller diamond dimensions and rules that prevented players from taking a lead off base or stealing.
King didn't want her younger son, Dylan, to do the same. So she signed him up for the Norwin Knights travel program, which plays by Bronco rules. Not only are their diamond dimensions different — Little League uses 60-foot base paths and 200-foot fences to Bronco's 70 and 225 — but King also says the players "feel it's more exciting."
"When they were younger, playing in-house and leading and stealing after playing for travel team, it felt like a very slow-paced game for him," King said. "My son's not bored with it yet."
The Norwin Knights team, coached by Norwin High's Mike Liebdzinski, is designed to serve as a feeder program for the high school. Liebdzinski also owns and operates the Baseball Academy of Norwin, and many of his travel players use his business for practice and private instruction.
Liebdzinski could not be reached for comment.
The Knights' 12-year-old team has played in Cal Ripken's tournament in Aberdeen, Md., and one in Hershey on Father's Day weekend, as well as those in Monroeville sponsored by the All-American Baseball Academy. The highlight of their summer was spending a week in July at the Cooperstown Dreams Park and American Youth Baseball Hall of Fame Invitational in Cooperstown, N.Y., site of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
The cost is $745 per player, which covers room, meals and uniforms designed specifically for the tournament. It doesn't cover the cost for families to travel and rent hotels or houses.
"Every year we have a 12-year-old team that goes," King said. "Everyone says it's an experience of a lifetime."
'Downfall of youth baseball'
Not everyone sees the benefit of a glut of travel teams, including at least one man who has made a living off the boom of private baseball instruction.
Matt Bianco, owner of the Bianco School of Baseball in Canonsburg, which he opened two decades ago, has watched his business grow from a 2,000-square-foot storefront to a 30,000-square-foot warehouse with indoor and outdoor fields. But the windfall hasn't stopped him from becoming opposed to AAU-like travel teams.
"It's the downfall of youth baseball," said Bianco, an associate scout for the Colorado Rockies. "All the rec league teams have all-stars. If your son doesn't make the A or B team, they spend $2,000 and make a team. I'm a scout, and the running joke is: It's not AAU ball, it's 'pay' ball.
"It's the 8-, 9- and 10-year-olds whose parents want to have a sticker in the back window. They travel to tournaments, stay in a hotel. It's the biggest crime right now in baseball. Parents are trying to pay to get away from a dad coaching, and they have the same exact situation as they left. They have so many teams doing it that the talent is diluted."
Ryan Flanagan disagrees, which is why he and brothers Dom and Frank Merigliano left their jobs as instructors at Bianco School of Baseball to form Pittsburgh Elite Baseball Academy. Based at the Greentree Sportsplex, the academy offers private lessons and runs 16 AAU teams ranging in ages from 8 to 18. Membership is $1,300, plus travel expenses.
"The worst kids get paid all the attention in rec leagues, and the best kids get left alone," Flanagan said. "It takes away from the better kids' experience. The thing about an AAU program is it gives an opportunity to break away from playing in just their neighborhood and to play against better competition. The thing we don't do in our program is play in a local league. We allow them to play for their communities. We don't try to deter them from that. This is just to give them a better brand of baseball."
Flanagan watches the Little League World Series and is convinced that "90 percent" of its participants also play for travel teams.
"Little League," he said, "is probably their second team."
Flanagan, who pitched for two seasons in the Minnesota Twins organization, said Elite Baseball Academy's focus is on player development to prepare players for high school competition and providing college connections for high school players.
"This is my only job; I don't do anything else," said Flanagan, 33. "It's the best job on earth. I'm living a dream — next to playing professional baseball — and I'm trying to help kids get to that level."