God’s Little Acre of Diamonds: Observations On Travel Ball in Cobb County, Georgia
2012 Column Contest Winner
Stella A. lives in Cobb County with her husband and two sons, one of whom is in his second season of travel baseball. Here’s how this world looks to one mom in the stands.
Fessing Up What
We Cough Up.
BY LYNN MURRAY
I’ve never been exactly clear about whether money follows kid sports or kid sports pursue money. It’s some of both, I guess. What I know is that baseball is expensive (it’s not horse-owning horse jumping, but then again, it’s not soccer either). There are always unforeseen costs that parents end up covering far more than they wanted or planned—a new bat, a restrung glove, a full set of catcher’s gear slides over from the someday column to the yeah-I-guess-we’re-going-to-have-to-buy-this-now.
When three-quarters of us in the A. family signed the contract for Henry’s travel ball team, we had a pretty good idea about the costs on paper, but what actually gets spent far exceeds the amount we signed off on. We knew that too. And then there is the one-quarter of us who is not playing baseball or paying for baseball. The combined costs of the older brother’s school soccer, summer swim team, and Boy Scouts are a fraction of what we spend on baseball. So we write another check payable to Guilt for what we’re spending on one kid and not spending on the other.
What follows is an introduction to the economics of travel ball for one family. Time to ‘fess up what we cough up for baseball.
Team Fees: $1500 per kid. This is what we tell ourselves we’re spending for Henry to play baseball. But keep in mind that this is just the base price. Our model has some extra features. So while you do a double-take at those zeros, perhaps I can rationalize them somewhat: other teams cost a lot more. At the older ages, when travel ball means leaving Georgia on a plane for tournaments in Texas or Florida, go ahead and add another zero.
But the fact that we could pay more doesn’t address the real question, which is why we spend so much on ten months of baseball for a nine-year-old? Our thinking went something like this: our kid is a pretty good baseball player—not phenomenal, but a solid player who’s athletic and energetic and tall. He loves to play baseball. He needs to be active. He lives to compete. He’s growing into a good right-handed pitcher. He could stay in rec league ball and maybe be a standout or he could move up to travel ball, where he’d have better competition and (we had hoped) better coaching than the volunteer dads in rec ball.
Don’t mistake us for baseball tiger parents. We’re not enforcing long, lonely hours of fielding grounders off the rusting pitchback in the driveway. We’re not hanging his higher education future on the shiny promise of a college scholarship. We’re just parents who feel a bit buffeted by the arms race of kid athletics; we’re buying (reluctantly) into a system that pushes kids harder to be better at younger ages. And, kind of ironically, we’re ensuring the continued good health of the system by feeding it wads of cash. We’d like Henry to have the chance to play a sport he loves in high school, but competition for a spot on any high school team, especially a baseball team, is tough. In the 1980s, at my husband Will’s all-boys boarding school, every kid had to play a sport every season. At the public school Henry will attend, only a small fraction of kids will get to play. So we’re spending all this time and money on something he loves now so that he has a choice, or a chance, to keep loving it later. And, I should add, it’s not like his baseball is some sort of punishment for us. We love watching him play. Sometimes the hours at practice and the hours in the car seem long, but the games never do.
So really, is there any sane way to rationalize the shocking costs of a kid’s leisure activity (a phrase I can’t imagine any baseball parent I know ever using) when $1500 accounts for 3% of the median household income in the U.S.? Travel ball is affordable mostly for the upper-middles and middles. And many of the latter give up stuff or acquire debt or concoct creative fundraising schemes to help pay for it—more on those shortly.
What does $1500 buy?
Field Time. In our case, about $200 per kid goes to a county park for field time and to cover umpire fees for a dozen or so scrimmages. One of the hardest parts about starting a travel team in a fertile acre of baseball is finding a place to practice. Even with 120 ball fields across Cobb County, there’s a lot of elbowing for space. As travel ball’s popularity has grown, teams vie with rec leagues for fields; many teams end up using privately owned facilities.
The Spark Plugs play out of a county park fairly near our house. Proximity mattered to us. Henry only tried out for teams that practice fewer than ten miles from home. Other families on his team aren’t so lucky. Some drive 15 or 20 miles, from counties north and west, just for practices. The rather unfortunate thing about this arrangement is its failure to foster long-term community bonds or lasting friendships. Kids on travel teams aren’t usually playing ball with kids from school, with their up-the-street neighbors. Teams form and dissolve. There isn’t even a kid on Henry’s team who is in his same school district. He’s more likely to run into former teammates at Six Flags WhiteWater (the summer gathering place for all of Cobb County) than to have me—his mom—organize get-togethers that involve cross-county driving. You’d never mistake travel ball for the pick-up sandlot baseball burnished by our collective nostalgia for An American Childhood. But in case there’s any doubt, check out what the boys are wearing.
Uniforms. Team fees also outfit the boys like pros from head to toe. In the words of our coach, “I’m big on image. You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” He’s a stylish dresser off the field and he wants the team to get noticed when they trot out of the dugout (“I’m talking about looking like a team. I’m talking about intimidation.” That’s Coach again). A sizeable chunk of his budget is going toward high-end uniforms. I actually had to take Henry to a uniform fitting—it was required.
The Spark Plugs get two pairs of socks; two pairs of piped Mizuno baseball pants ($40 each) with the kids’ numbers sewn in satin on the left hip (extra charge); two belts; two numbered practice jerseys; two numbered game jerseys, including one with custom sublimation ($60 for that one alone). Think “sublimation” is athletic fashion’s nod to Freud? To forgetting that you’re spending more money on your kid’s “play” wardrobe than on your own “work” wardrobe? Wrong. It’s a way to style a jersey by dying patterns into the fabric. All you need to know: it’s more expensive than traditional screen-printing (and “lighter” and “cooler”). The sublimated jerseys have a motocross look—lots of spiky red angles, a 3-D logo on the front, and the kid’s number on the back. Finally, the boys will be wearing fitted ball caps with the team logo on the front and their numbers embroidered on the back ($35 each—there are two—plus embroidery).
So what equipment are the boys forgoing that many other teams put in their budgets? Matching batting helmets, for one. Giant rolling batbags, for another. Teams spend lots of money on these and often custom embroider them with the team name and the player’s name and number. If your kid plays on a new all-star or travel team each year, you could line your garage with a new bag for each season. I was glad the team skipped this one. And then I ended up buying one anyway. It turns out that catcher’s gear takes up a lot of space.
Tournament Fees. Most of the travel in travel ball is to weekend-long tournaments around north Georgia. Teams host tournaments as fundraisers, and most of the national specialty sports associations (USSSA, Triple Crown) also sponsor them. The entry fee for a tournament for kids at the 9U level is $400-$500 per team. So what does that $500 buy? Well, it’s not—as you might think rather wistfully—a sizable chunk of your mortgage or a few weeks of groceries. It buys a guarantee of three umpired baseball games: two pool games and one bracket game. More games if you win in the bracket. Most tournaments are single elimination, so when you lose a bracket game, you pack up the catcher’s gear in the giant rolling batbag and head home. At the beginning of the season, Coach announced that we’d be playing around twelve tournaments this spring, so these fees eat up most of the rest of the $16,000 team budget.
Where Does the Money Come From? Offsetting the Fees.
This year, Will and I are just writing a check for the fees (many checks actually—we started chipping away at the $1500 last September). But a lot of parents take a look at the numbers, cough awkwardly, and turn to fundraising and sponsorships to offset the costs. If the Spark Plug parents find out I’m writing this column (heaven help me), they’ll probably impale my head on the left field foul pole and then insist that my widower put a “Sponsor the Spark Plugs” button somewhere on this page as payback for the betrayal.
The fundraising racket is incessant when your kids get school-aged. It’s not just baseball, of course. As more school activities are pushed into the extracurricular category and as schools scramble for scarcer resources, parents pick up most of the tab for what schools have taken to calling “enrichment” programs. The irony of this label isn’t lost on parents who pay drama club dues and after-school science club fees; they buy chorus costumes and chessboards; they send in cash for charity drives and “dress-down” days; they buy Chick-fil-A biscuits in carpool line for the fifth grade field trip. As the kids get “enriched,” the parents get poorer. Or they get drafted into the fundraising service.
Just about any organization that serves kids is likely to shove a tin can into the hands of parents to rattle at anyone who looks good for a few bucks. Baseball shamelessly cranks up its fundraising in the early spring, but a lot of teams fundraise year round. Historically, my dad has been my best mark; he’s got a row of sponsorship plaques hanging in his office. Generally though, fundraising is a closed economic system: my kid sells you some overpriced X and now I’m obliged to buy some of your kid’s overpriced Y. It’s all one big money swap, an exchange in $10 and $20 increments.
Below is a B to Z list of actual fundraising solicitations that I’ve received—just from other baseball teams:
Barbequed pork butts (got this one twice, for two different teams and two BBQ outfits); Braves tickets; car magnets (personalized with a kid’s name and jersey number); car washes; Christmas trees; cookie dough; coupon books; golf tournaments; Hawks tickets; home run derby tickets; Krispy Kreme donuts; magazines; online insurance surveys; pitch speed contests; peanuts; poker tournaments (two); popcorn; 5k run; restaurant.com gift certificates; silent auctions; raffle tickets (assorted); tote bags; Zaxby’s restaurant fundraising night.
And here’s a list of things I’ve done to raise money for a baseball team that I will never, ever do again: hold up a giant, cartoony carwash sign on Barrett Parkway next to the mall; sell hamburgers; and rattle my tin can at the Harley Davidson dealership during customer appreciation day.
What Else Can We Spend Money On? Or, How I Make $1500 Sound Reasonable.
Travel. There are tanks of gasoline and meals in restaurants and Cokes from the concession stand and souvenir tournament t-shirts and ballpark entrance fees to watch your own kid—the kid you drove there—play ball. Will figures that 30% of what we spend on baseball goes to little things, the things we don’t even put in the budget.
Gear. Spread it all out and it’s not hard to see why the rest of the world is playing soccer. Have ball will travel. In nine-year-old baseball, there are shin guards, kneesavers, and a chest protector; a hockey-style catcher’s mask and a Louisville Slugger Boxster catcher’s mitt. There’s a carbon fiber composite bat and a Rawlings “Big Stick” wooden bat for workouts in the cage. There are batting gloves, a batting helmet, sliding shorts, and a cup. There’s a chest protector and an Evo Shield and sunglasses. There’s eyeblack and water bottles and Phiten necklaces. There are tees and hitting sticks and weighted balls for pitching training. There are oven mitts for fielding drills and tennis balls for batting practice. There are cleats and stirrup socks and gallons and gallons of Gatorade. There is no end in sight to this tickertape of stuff.
Private Lessons. $200 for six, half-hour sessions with a hitting coach. We’ve written a number of these checks. Henry has gone to his hitting coach on and off for a year (I don’t even want to do the math here). We all pretty much love him. He’s young and a naturally gifted teacher. He has patience and a million ways to fix Henry’s bad habits. He can talk to the kid and the kid gets it. He sees stuff about a baseball swing that I couldn’t even see in slow motion. For half an hour, he’s completely focused on Henry; he explains things to him in this rational way and listens thoughtfully when Henry asks questions. When I watch them together, I can’t help thinking that the best coaching is basically parenting perfected. For 30 minutes he’s the dialed-in parent you wish you could be all the time, but aren’t. Or can’t afford to be because you’re working to make the money to pay his bill.
Sometimes, when I take Henry to his hitting lesson, I keep an eye on the lesson happening two cages over. Leo Mazzone, the legendary pitching coach for the Braves, is working with a tall sixteen year old who throws so hard and fast that the ball is all blur and dangerous sound. That one-hour lesson costs around $250. Every single time. I wonder if, seven years from now if Henry is still playing baseball, I’ll be willing to write those checks. If I’m being honest, I’d say maybe. Probably. Yes.
Will thinks hitting lessons are the best money we spend on baseball. And I see why when Henry steps in for his second at-bat of his second scrimmage of his second spring season of travel ball. Seconds after the second pitch I hear the solid thwack of a baseball coming off his ($200 Easton S2) bat, watch him watch the ball—even though he knows he’s not supposed to—as it rockets to right field. He scrambles down the line toward first, and I hear the base coach’s insistent “Take two! Take two!” and hold my breath as he makes the turn, slides into second, and pops up before the tag. A double in his second at-bat of the season’s second game seems like a lucky omen. And by the time he steals third and then home, I’ve tuned out the click of the adding machine in my head. I’m just there, watching from the stands, no second thoughts.
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