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Travel baseball teams have both pros, cons

Sycamore's Nate Haacker (right) tags out DeKalb's Danny Petras at home last year at NIU's Ralph McKinzie Field. Haacker earned a scholarship to play at Bradley this season, and gained additional exposure by playing on offseason traveling teams.
Sycamore's Nate Haacker (right) tags out DeKalb's Danny Petras at home last year at NIU's Ralph McKinzie Field. Haacker earned a scholarship to play at Bradley this season, and gained additional exposure by playing on offseason traveling teams.

When Jason Cavanaugh played youth baseball, his teammates held him accountable for his performance. 

The Sycamore baseball coach played on teams with players that lived in his neighborhood and attended the same school. Because of the camaraderie that existed, Cavanaugh felt as if he'd let down his friends if he'd make a mistake on the field. 

But as he enters his 18th season as the Spartans' coach, Cavanaugh has seen teams that lack the same passionate approach. As the number of travel baseball teams have sky rocketed, the commitment to teammates has dwindled. 

Elite travel teams, where the best players engage in meaningful competition, have led the most talented players to great heights. But Cavanaugh said the creation of numerous travel teams has watered down the experience and perhaps hampered the development of the prep game as well.  

"When every player is on a travel team, then no one is on a travel team," Cavanaugh said. "I don't see a correlation between playing travel baseball and getting better for every player. The disadvantage is on the travel teams where there is no selection process. Where everyone makes the team. I've seen travel teams loaded with players that wouldn't start on their varsity team. On teams where parents have to pay $2,000 and there is an equal playing time rule, nothing has been earned. When those players get to their high school team and only pay $100 to play, I am suddenly the bad guy because they have to go out and earn their spot in the lineup."

"But, I understand the draw. Players get on what they think is an elite team. They get to keep three cool jerseys with their names on the back, a team bag  with their name embroidered on it and they don’t have to carry equipment, rake the field or go to classes. I am all for players getting to play on college fields and to get increased reps, however.”

Weekend tournaments with players assembled from different communities has created players with divided loyalties according to Cavanaugh.

With rosters that can add new players week-to-week, Northern Illinois baseball coach Ed Mathey has spent more time in October during the Huskies’ fall training period to further develop nuanced skills. 

“Travel team rosters can vary from week to week,” said Mathey, who has coached NIU for 13 seasons. “The core roster can change. It makes it difficult to track guys sometimes and it makes it difficult for players to develop a symmetry.

“In baseball, some of the skills needed at combination positions are an art form. To turn a double play between the shortstop and second basemen is an art form. The feed, the timing, the flip, all those things don’t get in sync over a weekend. They come together with guys that have played together. On travel teams players don’t necessarily work out together or train together.”

There are also travel coaches that become advocates for players. Mathey has fielded phone calls from travel coaches who believe they have a player that would fit in the Huskies’ lineup or rotation.

Although travel team coaches and administrators have inserted themselves into the recruiting process, the high school coach will always provide Mathey with valuable feedback.

“We are in the business of getting our players an education, too,” Mathey said. “Players come to Northern Illinois to get a degree. Travel teams don’t have to worry about eligibility or players going to classes. I always check with a high school coach to see how a player handles their academics and responsibilities in the classroom.”

Because there are travel team administrators whose teams are their primary sources of income, it’s a priority to get as many players drafted by an MLB team or delivered to a college on scholarship. Such feats become potent advertising for the travel team’s website and stoke the dreams of parents and players that have similar career desires.

Yet it’s a select few who earn a baseball scholarship in college. It’s even rarer that a player receives a large scholarship from a college team. While exposure to better competition and increased baseball reps are potential benefits of players that participate on a travel team, dreams of a full-college scholarship are implausable.  

Division I baseball teams average 11.7 scholarships which they can disperse to 27 players. Mathey said pitchers demand the highest percentage  of the scholarship pie. Skills positions like shortstop, second base and catcher are a distant second.

Recent Sycamore graduate Nathan Haacker is in the minority of high school baseball players who earned a scholarship. Next fall he will play baseball at Bradley. He started to play on travel baseball teams in fourth grade, and by ninth grade, was traveling all over the midwest for summer tournaments. Last summer he went to Florida for a weekend tournament.

Haacker’s experience is different, however. He didn’t pay a large sum of money to play on a travel team with equal playing time rules. His skills warranted invitation to elite-level teams. Haacker played for the DuPage Training Academy Wildcats, Team Illinois and the Chicago Scouts Association.

Every summer he’d participate against the oldest players possible. When Haacker was a sophomore, he competed in the under-18 division.  

“I benefited so much from my travel baseball experience,” said Haacker, who is just the second player in Cavanaugh’s tenure to earn a Division I scholarship. “I’ve played with kids that were drafted. Kids that are going to the best colleges in the country. It helped me so much for the high school season, because on the travel teams I would play against, everyone can compete at a high level.

“If you want to be successful in baseball, I think you have to play year round. You don’t need the travel teams that cost thousands of dollars to play on either. If you are good enough, an invite to the best teams will come.”

With a view of players in games against elite-level competition, Mathey can better gauge how a player’s skill set will translate to future collegiate success. While Haacker dreaded hitting in a prep game against a soft-tossing pitcher, something he rarely experiences in a travel game, his participation led to greater exposure to college coaches.

“Travel baseball has given an edge to the top level prospects,” Mathey said. “It gives college coaches the chance to view the best players in competition against one another. Sometimes in a high school game the numbers a player post can be inflated if they aren’t facing the best competition week in and week out.”

But participation in numerous games has created diminished returns for some players, according to Cavanaugh.

“A player can only care about so many games in a year,” Cavanaugh said. “The more games you play the more divided you effort becomes each game.”

Since the boom in the number of travel teams, running a team has become an economically viable career. Which Cavanaugh suggested will only lead to the creation of more weekend tournaments and travel teams.

Whether that leads to a more skilled, complete player has yet to be determined.

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