When we last checked in with Henry’s travel ball team, called the Spark Plugs in this column, they had made a less-than-respectable, next-to-last showing in their first tournament together. Coach Larry, unhappy with the losing state of affairs at the Battle of the Big Chief, told the kids not to get too comfortable on the team. Never mind that most of us parents—having already paid hundreds of dollars—were pretty settled into the folding camp chairs that we lug from ball field to ball field. Having uttered his ominous warning, Coach flipped down his mirrored sunglasses and strode out into the overcast fall day. Changes to the team were afoot.
A month later, in December, this team of eleven nine-year-olds had become a team of seven nine-year-olds, and Coach was scouting prospects and holding “workouts” (code for tryouts). Gone from the Spark Plugs were Tim, a quiet kid who never did much to attract the coach’s attention; Jack, the son of Mug Shot Mom (see column 2); Darryl, the pitching coach, along with his son, Bobby; and Jared, Bobby’s best friend and son of the Team Mom. The four players and one coach left in different ways and for different reasons, each departure utterly commonplace in baseball, and utterly uncomfortable for the rest of us who remained, asking ourselves The Big Question: were we doing the right thing to stay with this team? You know—rats, ship, a geyser of seawater through a hole in the hull. Were we subjecting our kids to sketchy psychological tactics, or exposing them to political machinations better suited to a chapter in Game of Thrones?
Tim’s parents pulled him from the team, publicly citing his unreadiness to move to kid pitch and travel ball in the same season and privately expressing frustration with the coach’s management of the team, particularly his threats to bring on new players, which implied an unwillingness to coach and develop the players he had personally selected and who were already on his roster (i.e. their son).
Jack, on the other hand, got the classic freeze out, a less-than-subtle message that Mug Shot Mom couldn’t miss. Coach sat Jack first in every game and more often than he sat out any of the other ten kids. It was never clear whether the kid’s mouthiness or his batting average was the problem. At our final tournament, the only time Jack got off the bench was to bat last in the order. He was M.I.A. at our next scrimmage, and we haven’t seen him since. Passive aggressiveness works. Parents won’t stand long for seeing their kid benched, and coaches know that benching a kid is a good way to swing the door open for a parent to slam shut indignantly on the way out.
Ousting Darryl, the pitching coach, was the most perplexing move, in part because it meant losing his kid too, one of the best pitchers on the team. Will and I saw Darryl as an asset, a steady presence with a pitch-counter in his pocket. His instruction was good for all the team’s pitchers. But other parents grumbled that he was only teaching a few kids to pitch (probably true—but our kid was one of them so we didn’t complain—at least about that). Coach Larry apparently saw him as a threat, a usurper who was exercising too much control over a critical part of the game. The political intrigue between these two men was well known in a general sense, if never exactly public. In the end, Larry, the head coach, stayed on the throne, and Darryl and his son lit out toward Paulding County in search of a new team. After their exile, Jared’s family took sides and fled in the same direction. The Team Mom has a collection of bedazzled Spark Plug t-shirts that she’ll never wear again. And then there were seven.
And then there were eleven again. By mid-December Coach had picked up four new kids by posting a tryout announcement online and talking up his former players’ parents. That’s the thing about travel baseball. There’s always a kid who looks pretty good at a tryout and someone driving him there who is willing to foot the bill. There’s always a parent with ambitions for his kid, who is, you should know, a really good shortstop.
And, in their quest to win tournaments, to take home “hardware,” as trophies are commonly (obnoxiously, if you ask me) called, coaches are just as easily tempted by the lure of greener diamonds as by the promise of new talent. At our team Christmas party, Coach gave a rambling speech about his hopes for the boys in the spring and his commitment to the team (“no more roster changes”). But Coach slipped up and revealed that he’s already thinking ahead—to where he wants to take the team after the season that the boys haven’t even played yet is over. So, where do his ambitions as a travel ball coach tend? If you live anywhere in Cobb County—heck, anywhere in Georgia—the answer won’t surprise you much. He’s got his eye on the shiniest diamond in the county. He wants to take his team to East Cobb Baseball.
East Cobb is the cathedral of baseball in Cobb County. It’s High Church baseball. There are plenty of smaller parishes, which thrive in its shadow, but E.C.B. is largely responsible for the ascendency of baseball in a region that has historically worshipped football. Any family with a kid who plays ball eventually learns about East Cobb. Someone at the park will mention that a kid you know “left to play for E.C.B.” Or the older brother of a kid on your kid’s team “plays for East Cobb now.”
Once you hear it’s there, you may feel obliged to make a pilgrimage. We did. One night a few years ago, Will and I drove up in search of the East Cobb complex, which, like most cathedrals, seems designed to impress pilgrims, who travel from all over the U.S. for East Cobb-hosted tournaments, as well as to affirm the monumental place of baseball in the lives of the faithful—the kids and the families of kids who play there.
It’s not far off Highway 5, invisible at first except for the tall silver spires of field lights. Follow the lights down a two-lane county road, crest a small hill, and pull into the too-small parking lot. There before you, eight manicured diamonds fan out in a circle, like petals on a medieval rose window. We strolled along the paved paths, then stopped to watch a few kids running infield drills with an almost robotic precision. I was duly impressed. The baseball parks where I mostly spend time are noisy and clay-stained and a bit tatty, with trashcans overflowing with stuff that should be recycled and cinderblock bathrooms where no one would bother to hang a mirror.
The East Cobb complex is cleaner and sleeker than a lot of minor league ballparks, with giant sponsor-bedecked digital scoreboards, snack bars designed like turn-of-the-century grandstands, housing for visiting teams, and a vast indoor training space. And East Cobb has artfully shaded bleachers. In the Georgia summer, few things draw more appreciation from moms than a ballpark with shaded bleachers. On this night, with no tournament going on, the park was quiet and the boys purposeful. Will assures me that there are places like East Cobb for every sport, where thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds are trained like pros, but I’ve never seen one before. It has the feel of a place that takes kid baseball seriously. It’s hard not to wonder whether the proper phrase is too seriously.
The story of East Cobb Baseball goes something like this. Back in 1983, a baseball team from Cobb County won the Little League World Series. That World Series. The one on ESPN every August.1 Guerry Baldwin, a local coach, wanted to give those lauded local boys—and the ones who would come after them—a place to play and a more serious, professionally-staffed training program. His approach did away with the rec-league, dad-coached model that brought kids of all skill levels together on a team, and aimed instead to train and market the sport’s “elite” players. Baldwin’s vision was shared by a rich parent who donated a tract of land next to an industrial park in north Cobb County. There, Baldwin built a facility for best of the best—local kids who could win college scholarships or attract the attention of major league scouts. East Cobb Baseball eventually grew to an eighteen-million-dollar, 30-acre complex, and now it fields around 75 travel teams for ages eight to eighteen. Over the years East Cobb has won more national titles (181, according to its website) and trained more future major league players than any other organization in Georgia. It is generally recognized as among the top baseball programs in the country. More than 150 East Cobb alumni have gone on to play professional baseball; more than 800 have earned college scholarships. A 2010 Sports Illustrated article puts it this way: “What Silicon Valley is to computer chips, East Cobb is to youth baseball: the heart of the sport’s research and development.”
So, for parents and coaches like ours, East Cobb has an almost irresistible appeal. Every summer E.C.B. holds tryouts for its travel teams, bringing in thousands in fees ($100 per hopeful kid) and loads of talent to choose from for coaches selected by the organization. Through Henry’s year and a half of travel ball, he’s played in tournaments at East Cobb, and his teams have played (and frequently lost to) the kids in the jerseys with the unmistakable “E.C.B.” logo. Will and I reckon that at his age, there isn’t much advantage in trying out for or playing on an East Cobb team, if he could even make one at all. Major League and college scouts, who bump elbows all summer at East Cobb showcase events for 17- and 18-year-olds, aren’t hanging around to watch the nine-year-olds. At least I don’t think so. The younger kids don’t have as much to gain by playing at East Cobb, but that doesn’t stop some parents who carry hope around; it’s buckled right there in the backseat of the SUV, next to the kid who could—with the right coaching and more hours of practice than you would ever believe possible—grow up to be the next Jason Heyward, Brian McCann, Gordon Beckham, or Dexter Fowler (all former E.C.B. players now in the Major Leagues).
For evidence of the extent of parental ambition (and this stuff can’t be coming from the kids, can it?), I submit this notice in an online travel baseball forum for North Georgia, where local teams post-tryout announcements or players look for new teams. East Cobb Baseball’s fame stretches beyond the borders of Cobb County:
“9U playing in an elite Florida program is looking for a chance to be a part-time/guest player with a 9U Major team at East Cobb. His primary club plays one tournament per month so he’s available the other three weekends.”
To clarify, a parent (probably a dad) is prepared to drive (fly?) his kid from Florida three weekends a month to play on an East Cobb team. The kid is nine. The closest Florida town is five hours away. Crazy, right? But then again, after all I’ve seen and heard since we first walked through East Cobb, I’m not that surprised. It crossed my mind too, that first night, that it might be nice to watch Henry play baseball there.
Of course, East Cobb attracts admiration of the more grudging sort too. Kids on travel teams love to beat East Cobb teams in the way that underfunded underdogs get a special thrill out of lobbing rocks at a Goliath, decked in a golf shirt embroidered with national sponsors like Reebok, Rawlings, and Coke. One mom of an E.C.B. player told me that even within East Cobb, kids know the more favored teams—the “elite” teams—and take pleasure in rooting against them. I notice that our boys save a special sort of fire for the E.C.B. jersey. It’s that familiar mix of awe, longing, and resentment saved for the cocky kid wearing the expensive, coveted brands—the stuff your practical mom refuses to buy unless it’s on clearance.
Bring up East Cobb Baseball to a family with a kid in travel ball and you’ll get plenty of strong opinions, but there’s no denying its central place—and really, it’s already become a national brand. Warm Georgia weather that allows almost year-round play and the slow professionalization of sport at younger and younger ages, of which East Cobb Baseball provides a well-known (and often copied) example, ensure an expanding market for all things baseball, dozens of travel ball tournaments each weekend for ten months of the year, hundreds of travel teams, and watchable, even exciting games played by nine-year-olds. The villages on the road to the cathedral prosper.
So, what’s next for baseball in globally warmed-up north Georgia? An even bigger cathedral. Last November, the governor and a phalanx of hard-hatted men broke ground for LakePoint Sporting Community and Town Center—a billion dollar, 1,200 acre, mixed-use, sports-themed development projected to open in 2014, just across the Cobb County line in Emerson, Georgia. With the backing of high-profile investors like former Braves manager Bobby Cox, current manager Fredi Gonzalez, and Royals manager Ned Yost, LakePoint Sporting Community will have sparkling new training and tournament facilities for seventeen different sports, including sixteen (sixteen!) Major League-sized baseball fields and a 2000-seat stadium. Bobby Cox calls it a “one-stop shop” for scouts. Developers dismiss the “if you build it…” allusions in the local media. This is business, they say. We’ve run the numbers and four million of you will come to LakePoint Sporting Community and Town Center each year. We see your eight perfectly mown Fescue fields, East Cobb, and raise you shops, restaurants, movie theaters, and a bowling alley. Thankfully, the best minds in real estate are focused on the wallets of parents with kids in travel sports. They get opened a lot.
Postscript to the Spark Plugs’ Fall 2012 Travel Season
Question: What’s the least number of games you can win in a weekend-long tournament and still bring home a trophy?
After spending two days in November at an annual “Fall Brawl,” I can safely report that the number is… one.
The final fall tournament for the Spark Plugs was an odd combination of frustration and celebration. Coach knew the boys were out of their league; the teams assembled had better records, more experienced players, and, let’s be honest, more talent than the Spark Plugs. But Coach had a strategy: sandbag in the pool games, end up in the lowest consolation bracket, beat the rich kids from Dunwoody, and take home a trophy. It worked. Henry added another engraved, gold-tone piece of plastic to the collection atop his dresser: RUNNER-UP, 9U SELECT DIVISION. Coach got what he wanted too: a series of photos to scroll across the team website—gold-tone “hardware” featured prominently. He looks like a winner from here.
1 Little League™ doesn’t have a big presence in Cobb County youth baseball. Only two parks have chartered Little League programs; most of the other recreational programs play Dizzy Dean, Inc. baseball. Travel team tournaments usually follow USSSA rules.