Key Youth Baseball Decisions for Parents: Money, Time, and Beyond

The financial costs of youth baseball can easily spiral out of control, so I’ve been itching to write about it. A single season of recreational league fees, equipment, clothes, fundraisers, and other costs can total anywhere between $150 – $2500/year, while costs and time commitment can run far higher for travel ball teams. Much of this information is covered below.

While this article is based on my experience with 7- to 12-year-olds, most of these costs apply to other ages as well. Figure on spending about half as much for ages 5 and 6, and a bit more for teenagers who also pay for showcases and BBCOR bats.

As I started to write about cost, I realized that decisions over whether to do 8 vs. 5 months of baseball per year or spend $300 or $50 on a bat are minor in comparison with more fundamental decisions that need to be made at a relatively early age.

This post details the time and money it takes for kids in the U.S. to play youth baseball in various ways. But it goes beyond cost to also highlight and discuss more fundamental decisions that need to be made when considering how best to approach this all-consuming sport.

When does a Kid Need to Start Playing Baseball to Keep up with Peers?

Baseball does not help you become physically fit. I say that as a parent of a kid who has played organized baseball for 7 years straight since the age of 5, but no other organized sports (until he took up winter basketball at the age of 11).

My son is reasonably fit and athletic, but it’s not thanks to baseball. He walks to school. He plays tag, football, and basketball at school recess. He rides a bike. He shoots baskets. He did a bunch of rock climbing at a bouldering gym last year. He plays outside with friends during play dates.

Yes, coaches work with kids on base running, and perhaps players run a lap or two at the beginning of practice. But by and large, you don’t get in shape by playing baseball. This is why most high school baseball programs insist that players spend 10-20 hours/week on physical conditioning outside of baseball practices. High school coaches also encourage players to participate in other sports besides baseball to promote more balanced physical development. Multi-sport participation is good at young ages as well, rotating to a different sport each season. See The Value of Being a Multiple Sport Athlete for Baseball Players to learn about the numerous benefits.

In other words, the best way to get your body in good enough condition to play baseball is to use your body for sports or other physical activities that aren’t baseball.

There is this thought in baseball that you must specialize early to keep up with your peers and excel. If you don’t, you will never catch up. However, I’ve seen many examples of players who prove this wrong.

My experience is that any kid whose motivation, athleticism, and physical fitness are above average will have no trouble catching up to experienced peers. Kids who have had success in basketball, soccer, and other running sports will usually catch up in 1-3 seasons, depending on how much they practice at home (though hitting lessons may be helpful to catching up even faster).

I know one kid who played nearly year-round soccer from the ages of 5-9, participating at a higher level starting at age 8. Though he once dabbled in baseball for a few weeks at the age of 5 (with little success), he did virtually nothing with baseball until age 9, when he played his first full rec league baseball season. He followed with summer ball. At age 10, he opted to “play up” with the 11- to 12-year-old Bronco division and was chosen several weeks later for the “select” 11u team, while many older players playing for 5 years or more missed the cut.

The point here is that a kid with above-average athleticism does not need to start playing baseball at a young age in order to play baseball at an older age. There are even a few advantages to delaying baseball a few years. A kid will automatically become more physically fit if the time spent playing baseball is instead spent on a sport such as basketball or soccer with more running. These sports are also less expensive, simpler to learn, and more consistently engaging for young players during games. They also won’t cause wear and tear on the throwing arm, which can lead to future elbow or shoulder injuries. Some skills such as catching pop flies are hard to learn at age 7, but easy at age 11, due to normal physical development. As an extra bonus, a player starting at age 9 or later will be starting with a clean slate with no bad habits developed earlier.

Some kids such as my son insist that baseball is what they love most and that’s what they want to play as soon as they turn 5. Fine. Playing baseball is far better than staring at screens. Just understand what you’re getting into . . .

What about the Neighborhood?

Neighborhood play was common when I was a kid, but seems to be rare these days, especially in urban or semi-urban areas. It’s harder to self-organize baseball than basketball, street hockey, or ultimate given the field size and equipment requirements. But it can still be done, and is far less expensive than the alternatives.

As I mentioned in the prior section, baseball does not naturally make players fit. Playing outdoors in the neighborhood will contribute to physical fitness and balanced athletic development, and therefore better prepare a kid for a future in baseball or some other organized sport.

From the ages of 4-10, my best friend Chris and I played lots of street hockey, variations on tag, touch football, and many other outdoor games in our neighborhood. We hardly participated in organized sports, just 1-2 seasons each of rec baseball and soccer before we turned 10. If you are to believe what most travel ball coaches are saying these days, such an unfocused approach reduces a kid’s chance of making it onto a high school sports team, and reduces the chances of going beyond high school to just about impossible.

Well, despite my lack of athleticism and light participation in organized youth sports, I ended up playing intercollegiate Ultimate Frisbee because I practiced hard and played often with my neighborhood friends while in high school, for the cost of a few Frisbees. There was no league. There was no adult coach. I don’t think I could have done so much athletically if I had not played outside for hours/day as a little kid.

And how about my friend Chris Flynn? It was obvious to everyone that he had athletic ability, even as a child. He played football in high school, became a star running back for the University of Pennsylvania, and (because he was not big enough for the NFL) went on to become one of the star players for the Philadelphia Wings lacrosse team that won several championships in the 90s. He accomplished all this despite minimal involvement in organized sports before the age of 10. Apparently, playing outside for hours/day in the neighborhood was good enough.

Unfortunately, U.S. culture has somehow evolved away from neighborhood play, so this won’t be an option for most kids. For some kids it’s at least possible to play catch with a friend, parent, or sibling. It’s also possible for a parent to help organize some kid pickup games in the summer, which is something I did for two summers when my son was 6 and 7 years old. It cost nothing (beyond the equipment we already owned), though occasionally we were displaced to a different field because we never reserved or rented a field.

The only way neighborhood play will be enough at the early ages is if you live in a neighborhood where such gatherings are the norm. When buying a house, consider the neighborhood. You may end up saving tens of thousands of dollars on organized youth sports and a lot of your time if you live in a neighborhood where kids play outside together. Your kids may also end up physically fitter than schoolmates who don’t have the good fortune to live in an active neighborhood.

Recreation League Youth Baseball

For most kids in the U.S., rec league baseball is the best way to play baseball. It’s fun, social, and less expensive than every alternative except self-organized neighborhood play, an alternative which is not available to many in the U.S. these days. Travel is minimal and many kids and families develop long-lasting friendships. The time commitment for parents is significant but fun: Watch games, transport the kids to nearby practices and games, and volunteer some time/labor for the team and league. The time commitment is much more if you volunteer to be a manager or coach.

A well-run recreation league serves the needs of beginners and less skilled players, thanks to participation rules that typically require roughly equal playing time. A well-run league also serves the needs of more skilled players via all-star programs, getting to try several positions, and in some leagues having access to outside professional trainers.

Total costs range from $150 – $2,500 per season, with $400 – $800 being fairly typical (Annual costs for spring rec season ages 5-6 are typically half this much). Costs include fees, equipment, clothes, fund raisers, etc. as follows for a typical spring season:

Fees: $50 – $300 and a parent volunteer requirement. What players receive for this is use of fields, a hat, and a jersey. A volunteer manager (head coach) and 1-2 assistant coaches organize practices, teach players the fundamentals, and manage substitution decisions during games. The wide range of costs reflects local land prices, subsidies or donations to the league, and the length of schedule. Our league in El Cerrito, CA charges $225 for a long season that includes 4 practices/week in February, 2 practices/week from March to early June, and approximately 20 total games (regular and playoff). Land prices are high in our area, so field rent is a significant league expense.

Volunteer deposit: $0 – $200 (to be returned). Some leagues take a deposit, which is returned at the end of the season only if parents complete their volunteer commitment. So this will actually be zero for most families. Our league requires a $100 deposit. Our family always completes its volunteer requirements and therefore gets back the $100 deposit.

Clothes: $0 – $150. While rec leagues typically provide hat and jersey, they also require families to purchase baseball pants, socks, belt, and undershirt to match. Most players wear cleats. The way to drive this cost towards zero is hand-me-downs. Parents of the biggest players on the team are often quite happy to find a home for outgrown pants and cleats. We’re happy to take hand-me-downs when available, so we tend to spend about $50/year.

Fundraisers: $0 – $250. Expect to pay for MLB game tickets, opening day festivities, hit-a-thon, etc. We typically spend around $100/year on all this, mostly for tickets to Oakland A’s day when most of the league goes to an A’s game as a group. The A’s organization donates a portion of ticket sales back to the league. None of these costs are mandatory, but most people participate in at least one fundraiser.

Miscellaneous: $0 – $100. Team pictures? Bringing team snacks? Chipping in for pizza after an early evening game? Contributing to end-of-year gifts for the coaches? We do these things every year and they add up to at least $50 per season.

Equipment: $50 – $1500. Bats, gloves, equipment bag, tee, net . . . it adds up fast. However, it’s possible to get away with buying nothing but a decent $50 glove every 2-3 years. Bats can often be acquired as hand-me-downs, or even borrowed from a teammate instead of buying a brand new model. If you must buy a new bat, there are many good choices costing less than $100.

Some parents spend more than is really needed on equipment. Leagues provide catcher gear but some players want their own gear. A low cost, pre-broken-in generalist glove will do before the age of 12 but some players decide they want one or more position-specific gloves.

It’s usually bats where I see the biggest spending. New bats range anywhere from $30 to $500. Some parents experiment with multiple high-end bats for their player each season. I suspect that a few families in our league spend over $1000/year on bats for their player.

However, as I wrote about in my comprehensive bat guide, this is not likely to help your child’s batting all that much below the age of 11. Only the very biggest, strongest, and most competent batters at the ages of 9 or 10 are going to see a boost of more than 10 feet from a high-end bat as compared with an inexpensive model. Based on various calculations I discuss in the bat guide, for an average player, an expensive bat will make a noticeable difference starting at the age of 11.

Most important with bats is the size and weight. A bat which is too big, no matter how expensive, will hurt hitting results. Is your Kid’s bat too heavy? Here’s how to tell.

Grand Total: $150 – $2500. Our family spent an average of $1500/year for all baseball-related costs (excluding gasoline) over the past three years, as tracked by Quicken. Approximately $500-$550/year was spent on the spring recreation baseball season (PONY, not Little League) from the ages of 8-10, depending on how certain costs are allocated. I don’t include lessons in these costs because I associate lessons with all-star play. It’s a rare player who takes lessons yet plays no baseball beyond the spring rec league season.

The nearly $1000/year in costs unrelated to the spring rec season were for coach equipment (purchased for myself as coach but also used with my son), lessons, all-stars, a fall travel ball season that we only did for one year, and hotel and gate fee costs associated with all-stars and travel ball.

I was a bit shocked at how much we spent and where it all went as I reviewed our Quicken-tracked expenses over the past few years for this article. We think we are somewhat frugal with baseball spending. We have purchased altogether 5 bats in 7 years, most costing less than $50 and none costing over $100. We actively seek hand-me-downs for baseball clothing, cleats, and even a couple of bats.

One thing is very clear. That $500 we’re spending for spring rec ball each year is the most economical way to play organized baseball. As covered in detail in later sections, summer all-stars is slightly more expensive, casual travel ball can be quite a bit more expensive, and high-end elite travel ball is simply not affordable for most families.

As mentioned in the prior two sections, a more economical approach to baseball over the course of an entire childhood is to avoid playing organized baseball before the age of 11 or so. Other sports that involve running such as basketball and soccer cost less and do more for overall fitness and athletic development. Those who play other sports for years with some success will have no problems switching to baseball later on. Sure, the first year they play, they will lag behind some. With practice, though, they’ll catch up by the second or third year.

Do I regret all the time, money, and effort we spent on baseball these past 7 years? Not at all. Our son decides what sports he wants to play, not us. He always chooses baseball. Our family has many fond memories from every season and our son cannot imagine life without baseball.

I lay all this out so you can know what to expect, depending on what baseball-related choices your family makes.

Spring and Summer All-stars

Many skilled players look forward to playing more competitively during the summer, either with all-stars or travel ball. Compared with travel ball, all-stars is typically less expensive, more social, and less time consuming for parents as practices are nearby and players can carpool with friends to far-away tournaments. The quality of summer play with all-stars is highly variable, depending on the size of the league, the quality of coaching, and the amount of organizational effort the league puts into the program.

However, even if you are with a league that has a high quality all-star program, there is no guarantee your player will make the team. Unless your player is very obviously one of the top players in the league or the son of the head coach, you usually won’t know if he or she will make the team until after the selection process is complete. For players who do make the team, it can be preferable to travel ball in terms of time, money, and other factors I detail below.

Two ways to make all-stars more predictable for families is:

  • Hold try-outs in March or earlier so families know well in advance for spring and summer planning.
  • If the league has enough skilled players to support it, create additional summer teams. The top team is typically called by a special name such as “select” team, “A” team, or “blue” team. Typically, most players who miss making the “A” team are still hoping to play with some of their more skilled friends in the summer, so they’ll be happy to play on a different summer team associated with the league.

For many years, most of our league’s more skilled players moved to travel ball instead of our all-star program by the age 10 or 11. However, after several improvements to the all-star program in early 2014, the majority of summer players through age 12 are playing either for the select team (if they make it), or a different all-star team affiliated with our league. We even saw two spinoff travel ball teams mostly return to our league, which demonstrates that a well-run all-star program can favorably compete with casual travel ball.

In our league, any age group that has more than 25 high skill-level players will have a second all-star team besides the select team. In my son’s 11u age group, there are enough for 3 teams.

Important aside here: If your kid has a lot of skill and interest in baseball, it can really help his development and happiness in the game to be part of a rec league that happens to have a lot of strong players in his or her age group. My son had no interest in travel ball over the past couple years because he likes playing with his friends. He is very happy with the level of play, thanks to a very strong 11u peer group with over 35 players that play well. But if he were in a league with few skilled peers, I’m sure he’d have wanted to move on long ago.

The spring season for select teams and all-star teams typically consists of a Memorial Day Weekend tournament and perhaps one other tournament, and one practice per week. The schedule is light to minimize interference with the regular rec league games and practices. The summer season can range anywhere from one 3-5 game tournament a month to one 3-5 game tournament per week.

The cost for select team participants is less than other all-star teams, largely because fees for games that are part of the summer PONY playoffs are paid by the national PONY organization (UPDATE: In 2016, PONY did not pay these fees which means that costs went up for parents). Only one team from each age group can participate in the PONY playoffs: the select team.

The selection process for all-stars is a pain point for many leagues. It’s impossible to be completely objective, which can leave a player and/or their family with feelings of being treated unfairly if they miss the cut. Furthermore, social factors having little to do with baseball enter into the process. I’ve seen many a player overlooked because the selection team didn’t know the kid well. Conversely, I’ve seen “known” kids make the select team despite generating lackluster hitting and pitching stats over the prior 12 months of all-star play and showing no hints of recent improvement.

The unpredictability of all-star selection means that families can’t fully plan their spring and summer trips and other activities until they know if their player made the team. One of the most significant changes our league made in 2014 was to have tryouts in late March instead of early May, which makes waiting for the results of tryouts more palatable. Summer alternatives are still plentiful in April.

For parents new to all-stars, the handling of playing time and position assignments can come as a shock. An important question to ask before committing to an all-star team is whether the roster size will be kept to 12 or less. For details on this issue, read Getting Benched in Baseball: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

Total costs range from $200 – $7,000 for all-star spring and summer seasons added together, with $500 – $1000 being typical in urban areas with many close-by tournaments. Costs include travel, fees, lessons, equipment, clothes, etc. as follows:

Fees: $100 – $500. What players receive for this is use of practice fields and participation in weekend tournaments throughout the spring and summer. Typically, the head coach will be one of the most skilled coaches in the league with considerable baseball experience at the high school level or beyond. Tournaments typically cost $600 for a 4-game weekend which works out to $50 per player for a 12-player roster. Therefore, fees will typically be roughly $50 X the number of tournaments.

In our league, there are two tournaments in the Spring. The select team attends a tournament nearly every weekend throughout the summer, while the other all-star teams typically attend 1-2 tournaments per month.

The select team does not pay to participate in the PONY playoff tournaments, which start in late June and last 2-5 weekends depending on how far the team advances. Therefore, players who make the select team are getting a very good deal. Last year, my son’s 11u select team played a total of 48 games, for a cost of about $350 for the players who were able to attend all tournaments. As far as fees go, this is a moderately lower cost per game than the spring rec season, and far lower than most travel ball alternatives.

Travel: $50 – $2000. I include hotels, transportation, and eating in this category. This will vary depending on number of tournaments and how far away they are. In some dense urban areas, most (or maybe even all) tournaments will be close enough that hotels are unnecessary. Teams from less populated areas may attend many tournaments that are over 100 miles away and therefore require hotel stays. The cost of driving should be considered, though this can be reduced with carpooling. We try to keep our costs low by packing some of our own food and not staying in hotels for tournaments as far as 50 miles away.

Clothes: $50 – $250. Team hat and jersey must be purchased in addition to baseball pants, socks, belt, and undershirt to match the team jersey. Most players will already own cleats from the rec season and if they’re lucky some matching pants and socks. Again, hand-me-downs can lower costs, but that won’t work for the hat and jersey. Some teams have 2 or even 3 different Jersey/pants combinations, which can drive up costs.

Lessons: $0 – $2250. There is no requirement for pitching or hitting lessons, but in our league, many all-star players choose to take private hitting lessons, pitching lessons or both. A typical lesson may cost $50-$60 per hour, or less for a half hour session. My son took 7 pitching lessons a couple years ago and 7 hitting lessons last winter, which accounts for a big chunk of the costs associated with all-stars. We also spend about $50/year on hitting practice at the cages.

Miscellaneous: $0 – $500. Team meals when travelling? Gate fees for tournaments? Contributing to end-of-year gifts for the coaches? We do these things every year and they add up to at least $100 per season.

Equipment: $0 – $1500. You’ve already purchased equipment for the rec season so no additional equipment is needed. Nevertheless, I have seen many families use all-stars as an excuse to invest more in baseball equipment, typically bats or position-specific gloves. I personally feel that an additional $600 invested in lessons is more wisely spent than investing that same amount in 2 high-end bats. The batter matters far more than the bat. However, getting a good tee and net is a one-time purchase that will last many years and allow a player to practice in the back yard what they learn in hitting lessons. It takes thousands of repetitions to incorporate new mechanics into muscle memory.

Other equipment can creep in as well. Our son pitches so we’ve purchased an arm icer that we use any time he has a lengthy outing. When you go to many weekend baseball tournaments, you find yourself hauling heavy equipment several hundred yards every few hours. So you might invest in a collapsible wagon (I’m very pleased with this model). We bought the perfect cooler partly for baseball games and partly for camping trips. We’re using it more for games than camping, to keep the arm icer cool, along with refrigerated snacks and sandwiches. Maybe you count equipment like this as baseball costs, maybe you don’t—but they’re still costs.

Grand Total: $200 – $2500. Out of $1500/year our family spends for baseball-related costs (excluding gasoline), approximately $700/year was spent on the spring and summer all-star seasons, with the following breakdown:

  • Fees + hat/pants/Jersey averaged $300/year (NOTE: We managed to get a very good deal from 2013-2015. Normal fees in our area, when uniform is included, we be at least $500/year)
  • Travel averaged $70/year (we stayed in only 2 hotels in 3 years)
  • Lessons and use of batting cages averaged $300/year
  • $30/year in miscellaneous other expenses (we did not buy extra equipment)

This does not include gasoline. We drove approximately 700 miles per year to get to tournaments, so we should add about $150/year of gasoline costs to get to about $850/year on all-stars.

One thing is clear. Compared to the typical expense of casual travel ball, costs are very reasonable for all-star spring and summer play. We only participated in one fall season of travel ball that was very inexpensive compared to other travel ball alternatives because they were in their first year and thus offered a lower rate (the rate subsequently went up). Yet, that travel ball season still added up to a higher cost per tournament game. For roughly the same cost as all-stars, my son got to play in only 20 games (as compared with 30- 50 tournament games over the course of spring and summer all-stars each year).

Casual Travel Ball

I made up the phrase “casual travel ball” for this article. I needed a way to distinguish between two types of travel ball outfits:

  • Casual Travel Ball
  • Elite Travel Ball (or College Development Program)

An Elite travel ball team is one that has professional baseball staff, dedicated pitching and hitting instructors, substantial facilities, a carefully scripted development program, and a rigorous selection process designed to attract top athletes with great potential. They tend to be very expensive even without travel, and when travel to other states is considered the costs are out of reach for all but moderately wealthy families. The end-game for these programs is getting high-school-aged players seen and noticed by scouts at showcase tournaments. Many players who make it through these programs will get noticed by scouts and end up playing baseball for a college team.

The vast majority of travel ball teams do not fit this strict definition for elite. Everything that isn’t elite, I call “casual travel ball.”

Some casual travel ball teams are quite good at concentrating local talent into highly competitive teams but do not have facilities or dedicated professionals to teach hitting and pitching at a high level and are therefore not necessarily great at developing players to their full potential. Others have facilities and baseball professionals but accept most players in an effort to train up many players in the local area. Still others are spinoffs from a local recreation league that take above-average players (often from a tight-knit social group) to a higher level of competition than recreation ball, thus avoiding rec league politics and drafting procedures.

Any team playing in weekend tournaments that is not a rec ball all-star team is a travel ball team. Quality and style vary tremendously, even more so than with rec league all-stars.

With such diversity in travel ball teams, it can be hard to sort out which, if any, might make sense for a given player. Here are some questions to ask before getting involved:

  • Is my kid better off with all-stars or travel ball? The right answer for your kid may require family discussion and research into local options. It may require switching away from your current rec-league in favor of another that has a stronger all-star program and/or a higher skill level in your child’s age group.
  • Is this the worst kind of “Daddy Ball” team? Many travel ball teams are headed by one or more dads with kids on the team. Some of these teams are good, while others get a reputation for “daddy ball” when the coach sons gets lots of playing time and position assignments that may not be commensurate with skill level. In some cases, the coaching will be poor, playing time for those who aren’t coach sons will be minimal, and the team will not get better throughout the season. You want to avoid situations like that. The trouble usually begins when one or more coach sons happen to be of a skill level that is average or below for the team.
  • Is this travel ball organization a “talent concentrator” whose primary aim is to collect talent and win games, or does it also have a very strong player development focus? You’ll need to talk to families who have been part of this organization. Most travel ball outfits will tell you how great they are at developing players but few actually do much more than a good all-star program. Do not mistake talent identification and recruiting expertise for a strong development program.
  • How big is the roster and will it grow? Large rosters mean many players sitting on the bench at tournaments. Getting at-bats against live kid pitch is perhaps the most important experience your player needs in order to develop and grow as a ball player. That won’t happen much on large rosters unless your player happens to already be a top hitter. In my opinion, 12 is the ideal roster size for younger players, though 13 is often acceptable.
  • Does the team have a reputation for bringing in ringers for tournaments? Some teams will happily collect your money and drill your player at practices, but come tournament time, you may see a few new players who get lots of playing time because they’re great players, while your player sits on the bench. These new players never show up at practice but they show up at some tournaments to displace fee-paying practice players. Avoid these situations.

One of the main reasons families look into travel ball for their kids is to find a better alternative to an all-star system that isn’t working for them. If your league has a good all-star system and your player cares a great deal about playing with friends, then by all means go with the all-stars, which is likely to have a lower expense and involve less travel for practices and scrimmages.

Don’t buy the hype that all-star teams can’t compete with casual travel ball. Last year, my son was on a 10u all-star team that played 23 games against AA teams (the lowest travel ball rank), and 25 games against AAA teams (strong teams – though not as strong as majors. This team went 23-0 against AA teams, and 12-13 against AAA teams. A few of the AAA teams we beat were ones that practiced as a team year-round, skipping rec league altogether. All-star can be and sometimes is competitive with casual travel ball, and is generally less expensive. Just like travel ball, it will depend upon the talent level of the players and the quality of coaching.

Costs for travel ball vary tremendously, anywhere from $250 to $17,000 for a single season, and what you get in return for these costs varies even more. The saying “you get what you pay for” does not apply, given the variation in quality.

Fees: $150 – $5000. This is the cost for a single season lasting 3 to 5 months. What players typically receive for this is use of practice fields and participation in at least one weekend tournament per month. Fees at the higher end of this range typically get players use of high-end facilitates and individual hitting and pitching instruction from experts.

On occasion, you may find a travel ball team with fees comparable to rec league all-star teams at the very low end of this range, but this is the exception, not the norm. Our one experience with travel ball was with an organization offering a low rate in its startup year, so we were fortunate to learn about the travel ball scene at a low cost.

Travel: $50 – $5000. I include hotels, transportation, and eating in this category. As described in more detail in the all-star section, costs vary wildly depending on number of tournaments and how far away they are.

Clothes and Custom Gear: $50 – $1000. As with all-stars, it is the families’ responsibility to buy hat, jersey, pants, socks, belts, undershirt, etc. Costs can be higher because some teams opt to get 3 different Jersey/pants combinations, custom equipment bags, custom jackets, etc. See this article on travel ball costs for more detail.

Lessons: $0 – $3500. Some travel ball teams with high fees may include individual hitting or pitching lessons. Others may offer a discount for their instructors. Others, typically those with lower fees, may not offer individual lessons. While there is no requirement for pitching or hitting lessons, many youth baseball players participating in travel ball take private hitting or pitching lessons to sharpen their skills. Lessons typically cost $50-$60/hour, though discounts are sometimes available for getting lessons with instructors associated with the player’s travel ball team.

Miscellaneous: $0 – $1000. Team meals when traveling? Fundraisers? Gate fees for tournaments? Contributing to end-of-year gifts for the coaches? It adds up. It’s possible that the upper end needs to go higher for this category.

Equipment: $0 – $1500. Any player entering travel ball will already have equipment. Nevertheless, keeping up with the Joneses seems to be the norm in travel ball. It’s almost a given that players spend big on bats, position-specific gloves, and a several hundred dollar primary glove that takes months to fully break in. As detailed in my in-depth bat guide, the batter matters far more than the bat, according to the laws of physics. So you should prioritize lessons over bats if you have a limited budget.

However, getting a good tee and net is a one-time purchase that will enable back-yard practice and last many years. I am a bit puzzled at how many people I know who have spent thousands on bats, but don’t own a good tee and net, which cost about $80, and $150, respectively.

See the all-star section for other types of equipment that tend to drive up costs in this category.

Grand Total: $250 – $17,000. The extreme cost range for a season of casual travel ball reflects the diversity of travel ball experiences that are possible. To some extent, the higher end of this range may reflect teams that are operating at close to the elite travel ball level in terms tournament quantity and the level of services they provide. But for others, it may simply represent the misfortune of living in a part of the U.S. where there isn’t much baseball, typically due to weather considerations. Travel costs will dominate the baseball budget in such areas.

Our complete expenses for our one fall season of 8u travel ball were about $560, but as I already mentioned this was an organization in its first year offering a lower rate. If we were to participate this year, our costs would be considerably higher whether with this or some other organization, probably on the order of $800-$1000 if we were only considering the lowest cost alternatives.

Elite Travel Ball

I defined “Elite Travel Ball” at the beginning of the previous section in order to distinguish it from Casual Travel Ball. There are very few organizations that fit my strict definition for Elite.

Note that there are many baseball organizations (academies) that rent or own a facility with cages. They make available instructors you can pay for pitching or hitting lessons. Most academies have teams, and many of them have an entire program dedicated to developing youth baseball players over the course of many years. However, not all academy teams are “elite” teams. An academy may have no elite teams at all, or perhaps just 1 elite team for each age group starting at a certain age (12? 13?). Some very selective academies consist entirely of elite teams.

My son has not been part of an Elite Travel ball team or even played against such a team so I can’t speak from first-hand experience. Based on preliminary research, I believe that elite travel ball costs are near the upper end of the cost ranges discussed in the casual travel ball section above. If I am able to get some first-hand experience in the future, I’ll update this section with more details.

Here are some interesting articles about the elite travel ball experience. For a cost guide:

How Much Does Travel Ball Cost?

For a nice documentary style article:

Hardball: The Grown-up Pressures of a Little-boy’s Game

Interestingly, the elite travel ball organization profiled in this article was disbanded by the head coach a year later because the founder no longer believed in the concept, despite many years of success.

Final Words and Wrap up

This turned out to be a very difficult article to write. As I thought through all the ways we’ve spent time and money on our son’s baseball passion, I realized that there were some things we would have done differently had we known more at the outset. So I actually advised a few things in this post that are different than what we did.

If I had to do it all over again, I would not even begin to consider travel ball until age 12. However, this is because our rec league is great. What drives many to travel ball is when a highly skilled player wants a higher level of training and play and can’t possibly get it from any of the local rec leagues. It took a little experimentation for us to realize that not only is our rec league very good, but my son really lucked out to be with many skilled players in his age group. So my strongest piece of advice is that if you have the good fortune of a strong rec league with many skilled players, stick with it and it’s all-star program until at least the age of 12.

Other pieces of advice:

  • Insist your kid takes at least 3 months off from baseball each year, especially if he’s a pitcher, in order to properly care for his arm. This means no fall or winter ball that involves throwing.
  • If your kid likes multiple sports, encourage him or her to play soccer, basketball, or some other running sport at first instead of baseball. Players who excel at one of these less expensive sports will naturally get better physical conditioning and have no problem switching to baseball at the age of 10 or 11 (though it will take a year or two to catch up).
  • If baseball is the only team sport your kid likes, than by all means get him started at an early age. But try to be sure other physical activity happens as well, whether it’s neighborhood play, riding a bike, playing other sports during recess, etc. Balanced physical development requires more than baseball. If your kid is serious about baseball but still not doing any other sports by the age of 10, it’s a good idea to get him or her started with a formal strength and conditioning program suitable for younger ages.
  • Above all—don’t get caught up in the travel ball hype. You will hear things like, “Virtually all players making the high school team played travel ball before making the team.” That then drives people to think they must get slotted into the system as early as possible, sometimes enrolling kids into travel ball as early as the age of 6. This is silly. It is true that starting at the age of 12 or so, there are some advantages to joining high quality travel ball organizations in order to prepare for high school. But any earlier than that, all that really matters to a budding athlete is to exercise and develop his or her body in a wide variety of ways, many hours per week. Anyone with athletic talent, and a work ethic to match, will not be hindered by lack of travel ball experience before the age of 12. In some ways they may be advantaged, because hyperspecialization can lead to imbalanced physical development and in many cases career-ending injuries before the age of 18. In fact, some people go so far as to say that hyperspecialization is ruining youth sports.

So am I against travel ball? Not at all. Some of our local travel ball organizations are outstanding, and a good fit for many players, especially those who don’t have a suitably high quality rec league within a few miles of their home. For some players, travel ball will make sense, while for others, sticking to a high quality rec league will make sense. Hopefully, the above information will help in the decision-making process.

One last thing—the travel ball world is so varied that I have almost certainly missed something. If you have any stories or information to share, especially if it contradicts what I wrote, please comment below. I would especially like more information about elite or near-elite experiences.

Author: Joe Golton

I’m a dad with a son who loves baseball. Professionally, I’ve been a software developer, investor, controller, and logistics manager. I now make my living from this blog, supplemented with occasional consulting gigs.

12 thoughts on “Key Youth Baseball Decisions for Parents: Money, Time, and Beyond”

  1. Thank you Joe – you’ve clearly put a lot of thought and planning into this post and you’ve produced a very nice primer. I will assume your readers are serious about baseball and not just the parent of a child causally interested in the game. Forgive me if I sound cynical, I greatly appreciate those who volunteer their time and resources to any organization, but there are limitations with rec ball that parents need to consider in making these decisions with respect to rec / select ball. With that, a few thoughts:

    – A key point you note is that you live in a district with a good rec program, with a high degree of player development, instruction and opportunity to play an extraordinary number of All-Star games and tournaments. Not all of us are so fortunate.

    – Our local little league here in the Seattle area, probably like many leagues around the country, is organized and run by hyper-competitive parents. They are well intentioned, I’m sure, but they are in it to devote their time and resources to developing THEIR kids, not yours. Play time, positions and instruction will be geared toward all players to the extent the rules require it, but for the serious baseball parent, you must recognize these volunteers do not have your child’s interest in mind when they commit hours of time every week and weekend from February through May/June. The dad coaches are mapping out their own sons’ player development with a view to place them on the high school team (yes, at 9 or 10 yo, they are planning). The mothers are watching closely too (and they talk with other moms), so you must understand no volunteer dad is going to put your son’s development above his own or his relationship at home.

    – At all levels, those same dad coaches are the ones that determine who makes All Stars (and who gets playing time at tournaments). Your child must excel to overcome this initial selection bias. I understand Pony leagues at least have try-outs, but little league does not – its invitation/coach selection only. Most All Star teams will have about 12 players. So for example if you have 6 teams in a division, that translates into 6-12 coaches and assistant coaches with at least 6-12+ kids already. Being a coach does not automatically ensure your son will be selected, but you as a parent need to understand that many of these coaches have been planning this from the beginning of the season, and by the time of selection, they will have had all season to optimize their sons’ chances to be placed with All Stars. So that’s an initial barrier to entry.

    – In our area, middle schools do not have baseball teams (or any other organized sports teams) and little league only goes to the Majors level (10-12 yo), which means you must find and qualify for a select team by age 12 AT THE LATEST if you have any reasonable expectation of bridging the gap from grade school to high school baseball. I respectfully disagree that an otherwise inexperienced but athletic 11 yo can “catch up” with boys who’ve played select ball from age 9. Baseball is a hard sport to learn and even harder to excel in without many seasons of quality instruction and playing time. In all likelihood, at the Majors level of little league, only kids with select ball background will make All Stars. The level of play is just too differentiated.

    – At the Majors level, the physical and emotional maturity levels between an 11 and 12 yo are substantial already. But if your child has not already participated in some form of select ball (casual or elite – I think your terms are apt) by the time they reach the Majors level, their relative lack of skill sets will be obvious on the field. That translates into diminished opportunity for All Stars and a substantial handicap going into select ball tryouts for an organization to bridge the gap to high school. And while I agree with Coach Joe that select play is not a prerequisite for high school baseball, in our area it may as well be considering the number of players that do.

    – There’s another layer worth mentioning although I’m not sure whether its simply a product of the hyper-competitive environment of my Seattle area suburb (but suspect its not): the value of private, paid instruction. Whether your child plays rec only or both rec and select, in our area your player should seek out professional instruction. Quality varies, but most places with a batting cage will have batting and pitching instructors. They may also offer camps during school holidays, and if your child is not a select team, their winter training programs are great opportunities for development. Sadly, I’ve found little league parents and coaches treat the location of these facilities and the identity of “good” instructors as carefully guarded trade secrets, the names literally whispered among the parents-in-the-know. (Yes, seriously.) In our case through trial-and-error we found quality instructors who typically coach at high schools or teenage-level elite select organizations looking to place kids on college teams. Often you must be willing to travel longer distances; the most convenient location may also have the highest rent and can’t afford to pay for the better instructors. But these facilities and instructors will not only improve your player’s skills beyond the ability of your typical little league volunteer, they also open doors of opportunity that otherwise you will never get saying in rec leagues.

    I hope my comments do not discourage any parent who loves the game. Our son loves to play and my wife and I are truly astonished and thank God for how hard he’s willing to work to improve. Through baseball he’s leaning the real value of dedication, hard work, leadership and many other virtues. So when it comes to asking, “Why do you sacrifice so much time and pay so much for baseball?” we reply, “We don’t pay for baseball – we sacrifice and pay for the education of our young boy soon to be a man.” Baseball, the world’s greatest sport.

  2. Thank you so much, Chris, for your long and thoughtful comment. Your description of your rec league causes me to be even more grateful that ours is so good. Many of the behaviors you describe are present to a small extent, but our feedback system and various policies work to minimize the issues you bring up. It’s a lot of work, but we sure appreciate it.

    I wrote a post last month detailing many of the policies that make our league so good:

    I’m a Dad coach of 12 players in the 11-12 year-old Bronco group. I had 9 out of 12 players pitch over 4 innings in our regular season (14 games) and every single one of these 9 players had a strike % of at least 50%. I worked very hard to teach 11 out of 12 guys good pitching mechanics in February. The 12th guy wanted to be a dedicated catcher so I told him that he couldn’t pitch in order to avoid injury to his arm. He was incredibly fortunate because we had a coach on our team who played catcher in high school (caught for Tim Lincecum actually, who was a good friend of his). And he loved teaching this guy all the intricacies of this complicated position. I have seen many travel ball catchers and few got as good instruction as this catcher got.

    Everyone has developed on my team. The progress has been tremendous and very gratifying. Some of our rec games, we look like an all-star team, not a rec ball team. Everyone has at least 3 hits this year, and 11 players have at least 4 hits in the regular season.

    I am by no means as knowledgeable about baseball as the better travel ball coaches around. I’m willing to bet your travel ball coaches have more expertise, for example. But I can read coaching books, I can organize practices efficiently, and I am happy to let coaches who know more than I do take over a particular drill (especially hitting mechanics, where I’m weak). I brought in an outside pitcher trainer in February to supplement all the mechanics work I was doing in case I missed seeing obvious stuff that he could see.

    I am not the only decent coach in our league. Most of them are really good. I make mistakes. We all make mistakes. But we all care about every kid on our team and the majority of coaches in our league take great pride in developing every player on their team. Can we make a first year player into an ace pitcher? No. Nobody can. But we can and do get first and 2nd year players learning pitching mechanics and pitching in a scrimmage or two so that the following year they can become a regular pitcher. And we do that with many other positions.

    Sounds like the culture in your league is beyond repair, so for you the best option is travel ball. And maybe your situation is the norm, while ours is the exception. I don’t really know.

    But thanks for sharing your story. I hope to hear many more.

  3. Hi Joe – from your comments I think a key differentiating factor in your approach is that you take time to actually develop the players, especially in the key specialization positions of pitcher and catcher. I’ve often heard, and I believe its true, that the team with a deep bull pen wins tournament games. Its not the only determinant, but its a necessary ingredient. With pitch count limits, its easy to run out of good pitchers fairly quickly in a two or three day tournament. And especially at the 50/70 diamonds, with lead-offs permitted (unlike little league rules), in tournament play a good catcher is essential to stop runners from simply stealing their way home.

    By contrast, year after year I’ve seen little league coaches hold a mere 20 minute session at the beginning of the season to see who already throws the best – and bam, that’s it. Same with catching. They’ll take the top four and that’s pretty much it for the season. There’s no rule requiring every player to pitch or catch. Developing those positions is both a specialized skill and takes time away from what little league coaches appear to be more comfortable with: simulated defensive drills hitting from home plate and calling out plays, or coach-pitch BP one batter at a time (with 9 kids standing around waiting for something to happen).

    I suspect that if you’re the kind of coach that develops that many quality pitchers and brings in a subject matter expert for catching, your practices are more organized, more efficient, and you’re probably building a lot of other skills that separate the causal rec league player from the select.

    Part of the problem with little league is that they only train outdoors and probably have access to only one field. So its difficult to break down into groups and rotate through the specialty positions of pitching and catching. With select ball and their emphasis on winter training, the teams will use an indoor facility with multiple cages and open areas for fielding work . So you’ll see kid pitchers working with catchers conducting BP in a couple of different lanes (at real pitch speed) while the other kids do fielding drills in the adjacent lanes at the same time and rotating in. With twice weekly practices from November through March, those players are simply better trained than rec league players dusting off bats and gloves coming March (when the rains lift enough in Seattle to permit outdoor training).

    Sounds like you’ve really got a great approach and a really unique organization, Joe. And your humility and deep concern for the kids is a good thing, too. It tells me you’re developing special players and fine young men. Isn’t baseball great? Its like a university for life skills.

  4. Baseball is indeed like a university for life skills, though also a university for a rather ridiculously high number of baseball skills. There’s no way you can cover everything in a single season. So you have to choose your spots and organize your practices efficiently.

    One thing that I do a bit differently (even from other coaches in my league) is batting practice. More specifically, I hardly do any batting practice at all. I do discuss the strike zone (which pitches to swing at, which to take). I also had a station at one practice where I watched each player hit soft toss and got them to experiment with different bats if they weren’t hitting all line drives.

    Though nobody on our team had “perfect” hitting mechanics, only one player had poor mechanics. I had one of my coaches (the one who was best at teaching hitting) take that one player aside at several practices and rework his mechanics, including telling him how to practice at home. That player’s mechanics improved, which led to better results starting a few weeks later.

    I do include hitting as a major part of pre-game warmups (hitting smush balls, and hitting line drives into the net). However, my first season I did little coach pitch, and this season I did no coach pitch at all at practices. After a month of several players pleading with me to allow one practice devoted to hitting live kid pitch, I did that for one practice. I regretted it. It’s an extremely inefficient use of practice time.

    When you don’t do batting practice, it frees up lots of time for other drills.

    I don’t want to give the impression that all my pitchers were great. As with any team, some were better than others, and I don’t think any of our pitchers were among the top 5 in the division this year. But getting 9 guys to the point of throwing 50% or higher strikes was a big accomplishment. We issued 4.4 walks per game on average in 7 inning games, which is pretty good considering it wasn’t just the top 3 or 4 pitchers pitching every game.

  5. Note that I attempted a balanced approach in this article, stating pros and cons of rec ball vs. travel ball, with perhaps a slight bias in favor of rec ball if you happen to have a very good rec ball league in your area. However, there have been been many articles in recent years warning parents away from travel ball. Here’s an example of one that I thought was particularly persuasive:

    Don’t Play Travel Ball: Stay in Rec League

  6. At 9, my nephew was ‘discovered’ by an Independent coach for an elite travel team of kids who stuck together from ages 10-13. This guy played some Minor league ball himself and invested in a travel team as a business. They were dubbed Elite and had access to indoor training all year round and a 50+ game schedule mostly comprised of weekend travel trips with 3+ tourney games. The ‘all in’ cost was easily $3,000 per year. By the time my nephew was 14 and going into High School ball, he realized that the HS coach favored the “non Elites” on the roster; the kids who played the Summer Pony League, for example. My nephew, who was used to being Elite, never had competition at 1st and he became frustrated and gave up too soon to play golf. Good little golfer too, but I think the kid had an element of burnout after logging in 200+ games in 4 years and going 9 months of training. So the question for a lot of parents is – When do I know if my kid is Elite, and are Elite/Travel/AAU a necessity for eventual recruiting like they are for Soccer? What about the late bloomers who hit their stride at 15?

  7. Ben,

    I have never believed the line that “travel ball is now required to make it onto a good high school baseball team.” Just ask around and you’ll hear many examples of both travel and nontravel kids making high school teams, and the ones who really shine at the high school level may come from either source.

    For pitchers, I read way too many stories of kids who were awesome preteen travel ball studs only to have arm troubles late in high school or in college that ends their baseball careers. I simply cannot see an advantage to logging thousands of youth pitches per year, as some travel ball kids manage to do. They may be further ahead entering freshman year of high school but that gap narrows soon enough.

    All that being said, there are also many players who participate in travel ball for the summer instead of all-stars. This more modest schedule still leaves September through January each year (at least) to rest arms and play other sports. Travel ball is here to stay and for some kids it will be by far the best option if the local area does not have any well-organized rec leagues around.

    I personally have a preference for rec leagues if available, but I know that some of my feelings about this are shaped by having not just one, but two well-run rec leagues within 5 miles of our home. If I lived in an area with poorly organized rec leagues, I have no doubt that my son would have been playing travel ball for 7-8 months/year as a way to get in his baseball.

  8. How do I find somebody to notice my 11 year old left-handed pitcher

  9. Victoria – You’d have to supply more detail on the particulars to receive an answer that might potentially be helpful. Does he play recreation league baseball or travel ball? Are the coaches dad coaches who favor their own kids above others?

    Without knowing the particulars, all I can say is that he will be noticed if he performs very well at tryouts and/or evaluations. He will be noticed if he hits the ball hard as a batter. He will be noticed if he pitches with high velocity, or if not with high velocity he has other means to make life difficult for batters (command, movement, deception).

  10. My experience has been a lot like Chris’ in his post. We have a well organized local little league in Arizona, which loves to highlight that Cody Bellinger played for them. What actually happened was that Cody’s dad (former MLB player) had a good travel ball team that enrolled most of the team on one little league team and ran the tables all the way to Williamsport. So, let’s be real clear, despite the advertisement that the LLWS like to talk about Cody’s participation in little league, that was a club ball caliber team masquerading as a little league team.

    We moved to Arizona from another state and my son played 3 seasons in this same LL system as Cody Bellinger. I have never seen such manipulation by coaches and politics in my entire life for All-star selection and ‘drafting’. It was EXACTLY how Chris described his situation in Seattle. In fact, my son’s former coach asked my son to drop a few balls and strike out on purpose during the drafting process, so he could draft him in later rounds allowing him to shore up an exceptional team of ringer kids. What kind of person manipulates kids to cheat like this? LL does. Joe, you give me hope that somewhere LL is being ran how it should be ran with coaches caring about the whole team’s player development instead of self promoting their own kids through the system to start on all star teams annually. These coaches act like it’s a chore to bring on a few kids with little experience and stick them in right field. My son was good enough to play all around, but I felt bad for the parents of the right fielders, I’m sure they didn’t expect LL to be this way. These kids do not received adequate training. I wonder if there is a statistic that highlights how many of the all-stars have the same last names of the LL coaches? That would be an interesting statistic. Once we switched to club ball (travel ball’s aka name in the Phoenix area), things became much better. We did experience the daddy ball effect you accurately described in our first season in club ball, but we quickly moved from that team to a much better good club ball team now. I’m proud to say that we will never go back to LL…ever.

  11. I think an easy way to answer the rec vs. travel question is multi-faceted, but each part is easy. Don’t overthink it. I know one guy who’s kid was the stud travel player all growing up and never made college and another dad who’s kid was average, played a ton of rec and now plays minor league

    During rec season are you frustrated with coaching, other players lower abilities holding back your player or team (I know the point is fun and development but once it starts frustrating you to see your kid not develop as he should…) each season a total change in approach, contrasting coaching approaches? If yes, look at travel.

    Second, interview various travel teams by having your player simply try out. First, it will tell you if your kid is really good enough or not and it will also give you a feel for the various teams.

    Last, decide what you want to do and if it is travel, pick a team you were accepted to that fits your style. We chose an “elite” team but not over the top. From tryout night to first practice, the coaches talked about at such a young age (7/8) they are all about player development and fun. Of course they want to win, but they fully get the kids are so young and need to learn the game. We felt it was a great spot between rec and all out win at all costs ball. The fact we practice so much more than rec and have a couple tourneys a month means my kid will get better just based off playing more. So it’s a win. Also the caliber of player is drastically different. He can actually throw hard and play real catch with every kid on his team versus chasing down wild throws all rec practice. If your kid can’t make travel or it isn’t a fit, stick with rec leagues and enjoy it. I fully believe that by the time they get a little older, a lot of the questions parents of really young players have will be answered in time base on how their kid does.

    Last, especially you dads, no matter rec or travel, play catch with your kid, soft toss, make it fun and spend quality time with them. I miss coaching my son’s rec teams, so now I more than make up for it by practicing at home with him and re-enforcing what he learns at travel practice. Also make sure your player is having fun and wants to do it. My son loves playing and wanted to be on a travel team. So we encourage him. Hopefully he doesn’t get burned out. If a time comes and he is getting burned out, maybe we play a season of rec to lay back, who knows. Since travel eats up so much time he doesn’t play other sports now on a team, but we do have him in various camps for other activities and sports so he is well rounded.

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