Today’s guest columnist is Hunter Strickler.
It’s tough being a parent.
On nearly every topic related to kids (including the one in this column), I find myself with many more questions than answers.
Though my experience with youth sports is limited to Hoover and baseball, parents in other OTM communities like Homewood and Vestavia Hills have told me they are wrestling with similar trends across youth sports.
“Travel ball is ruining our country,” Hoover resident Ben Short told me recently. “Coach Short” (as I know him) is a former All-American pitcher at Alabama, a 1991 New York Yankees draft pick, a former college baseball head coach, and the father of accomplished high school and college baseball players.
I hear some version of this sentiment over and over again from my peers and former teammates who have kids navigating youth sports these days.
While the business of youth sports has ballooned to a $20 billion industry, participation in youth baseball (ages 7-17) in the U.S. has declined by more than 40% since 2002 (according to the National Sporting Goods Association).
But it wasn’t always like this.
My youth baseball experience in Hoover was very nearly perfect. On any given spring Saturday in the 1990s, this was my plea to my parents:
“Drop me off at the ballpark the moment it opens. Don’t pick me up until they turn out the lights.”
It didn’t take much convincing for my mom and dad. They wanted to be at the park all day almost as much as I did. In those days, it felt like the whole city was there. The ballpark was where community building happened. The park served as a sort of central hub for the city of Hoover, the de facto social networking platform of my youth.
Thirty years later, I realize how formative those spring days were in shaping my childhood. Even today, I trace many friendships back to those sunny days sipping slushies and playing wall ball at Hoover Central and East ballparks.
Back then, we weren’t hustled out of the park and into “elite” or “select” teams before we reached our 10th birthday. All the way through the 8th grade, the best coaches in our community coached a combination of the most and least talented kids in regular old park ball. Only after we hoisted the park ball championship trophy did we turn our attention to forming the All-Star teams to compete against the best teams from other local parks, including our formidable arch nemesis, the Rebels of Vestavia Hills.
The result of a system that put an emphasis first on park ball and then on All-Stars was a vibrant local park and a healthy blend of competition and community. The late bloomers had time and space to develop. There was sufficient talent density to keep the better kids engaged in competitive park ball before transitioning to ultra-competitive All-Stars.
Park ball didn’t dilute the quality of my youth baseball experience. It enhanced it.
Somewhere along the way, we decided to rush our kids through every stage of athletic development based on the idea that our kids are too advanced for age-appropriate things like tees and pitching machines. We’re in a hurry to send them off to something bigger and better while missing the fact that the best things are sometimes right in front of us.
But the on-the-field results aren’t measurably better. Travel ball doesn’t produce more competitive youth or high school teams in the Over the Mountain area. By 13 years old, we were state champs. We finished runner up at the World Series.
The next year, 1998, the late legendary Vestavia Hills High School Coach Sammy Dunn took his former park ballers from the Vestavia youth leagues and turned them into Baseball America’s National Champions on his way to 9 state titles in 10 years.
The golden era of high school baseball in our area coincided with the heyday of park ball in the Birmingham suburbs.
There aren’t more college baseball players coming out of our area than a generation ago. So what are we chasing? What is the end goal? What was wrong with park ball again?
My park ball coach, Coach Tommy, was a baseball savant. He taught me how to play pepper and how to execute a hit and run. He bought me a copy of Ron Polk’s Baseball Playbook and made our entire team memorize the infield fly rule and recite it at practice like a Bible verse.
Thank God travel ball didn’t exist back then. If it did, Coach Tommy’s impact would have been limited to roughly 10-12 kids, about the size of the travel ball silos that exist today. Instead, he impacted easily ten times as many kids of varying skill levels over the years. He made us all better. We paid him a grand total of $0.
Before travel ball, we packaged up the best youth baseball experiences – the best coaches, the best facilities, the best resources, and we delivered them through the park ball experience to all the kids in the community, regardless of skill level.
My parents did not have to spend thousands of dollars for me to receive elite instruction. We did not have to travel all over the Southeast or play year-round. In fact, we rarely had to leave our own city. It was part of what the community offered to us through our local Parks & Recreation board. Everything we needed to compete and develop as kids and athletes was right in our backyard.
It’s a shame the new system doesn’t offer the same community ballpark experience to my kids, nephew, and nieces once they hit 9 or 10 years old.
The old system wasn’t broken. It didn’t need to be fixed. It needed to be preserved and embraced. Ask my old teammates. Ask Coach Short.
Travel ball culture may not be ruining our country, but is it best for our community? Is it best for our kids?
Hunter Strickler is a Birmingham native. He is the co-founder of the Clutch! game day parking app and serves as the Director of Venture Operations at Harmony Venture Labs, a Birmingham-based venture studio and venture equity firm. Hunter is an avid sports fan and can be found cheering on his two daughters in basketball and softball or his alma mater, the University of Alabama.
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David Sher is the founder and publisher of ComebackTown. He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).
Invite David to speak for free to your group about how we can have a more prosperous metro Birmingham. email@example.com.