Buzby: Travel baseball threatens original

The other night, I had a discussion with a former coaching colleague about whether the overwhelming popularity of travel baseball will someday replace Little League and other community sports leagues.

Little League baseball, perhaps the oldest and most tradition-rich youth sports league in the world, recently changed its postseason rules to accompany travel baseball players, fearing that if it didn’t, even more would migrate permanently to the organization’s newest competitor.

Over the years, Little League baseball has often been imitated, but never equaled. There is only one Little League, one Williamsport, and one magical summer weekend when even the non-sports fan can’t help but tune in to watch innocent pre-pubescent boys play on national television.

But with the ever-increasing popularity of travel sports, can local community leagues like Little League survive?

It used to be that only the best athletes played travel sports. Today, as long as a parent is willing to commit the money and time, a travel team can be found for a player of any skill level.

There are definitely advantages to playing on a travel team: Playing as many games in one weekend tournament as a traditional league does in an entire month; playing against top competition; not having to line the base paths, umpire a game or work in the concession stand; and traveling to new and sometimes exciting places.

And yet I would argue that there are several aspects of community sports leagues that can’t be found in travel baseball, and none of them involve hitting homeruns or scoring a lot of goals.

Community leagues give parents and players just that — a sense of community. They can take pride in their home field and stadium. And there’s always that feeling of being at home at the ballpark, even if your team is wearing the away jerseys.

Playing in a community-based league is about playing with and against your friends. It’s about a parent sitting on a lawn chair in the outfield cheering for a neighbor, who happens to be playing for the opposing team.

Not once during my 10-plus trips to a travel tournament at a baseball complex two hours from my house did I ever feel at home, despite spending more hours there over two summers than I ever did during my son’s eight years of Little League baseball.

I don’t write this column to diminish the value of travel sports or to suggest they should or will ever go away.

I just hope I never have to write a column titled, “Whatever happened to Little League?”


Enjoy the day and the game

This week I give out my award for the best spectator ever. I’ll call him Wayne.

Wayne spends his spare time following his grandchildren’s youth sports teams. It really doesn’t matter where they play or what the sport, he seems to show up at just about everything.

For a recent baseball tournament he drove two hours to watch his grandson play in one game. And then drove two hours home.

Wayne arrived shortly after the first pitch with his chair and cooler in tow. He setup “camp” away from all the spectators, but with a perfect view of the field. And then to my surprise he pulled out a book.

I couldn’t believe my eyes. Four hours round-trip and he’s going to read a book. He looked up whenever he heard the crack of the bat ~ whether it was his grandson batting or not.

In between one inning his grandson was near him warming up the left fielder and that caused him to look up. Most parents or grandparents would have some sort of baseball advice. Not Wayne. His only words, “JC, I have a great book for you to read!”

I turned to another parent and said, “Wayne has it all figured out, doesn’t he?” The rest of us are stressing out over watching fourteen year-olds play baseball and his only care in the world this day is making sure his grandson realizes there are more important things in life than baseball (he had just struck out the inning before).

And so you might ask yourself, “Why drive four hours to read a book?” Well, believe it or not, after the game Wayne could recall just about every critical play ~ more than I can say thanks to my gift for spectator gab.

Every player he passed after the game was congratulated for something that happened during the game. Once again ~ Wayne has it all figured out.

As I listened to the other parents barking at the umpires or their own kids I had to sit and wonder ~ if all of us took a chapter out of Wayne’s book, wouldn’t the youth sports world be a better place.

By sitting out there with a book Wayne was sending a very important message to everyone in attendance on and off the field ~ he was there not just to watch a game, but to enjoy the day.

My guess is he was doing two of his absolute most favorite things: watching his grandchild and reading a good book.

Wayne drove two hours to the game, watched his grandson bat once and have zero attempts in the field. Our team got creamed in less than two hours. Wayne closed his book, folded up his chair, sent along a few “nice jobs” and drove two hours home with a smile on his face.

In his mind, time perfectly spent.

Wayne has it figured out.