One Player’s Journey from Little League to College Baseball (The Beginning)

Making it onto a college baseball program and staying with it for all 4 years is not easy. Playing high school baseball also has its challenges.

Want to know what it takes?

I’ve been curious myself about what it takes and how it works to play baseball all the way from Little League to college. I’m curious because my own 12-year-old son has been telling me since the age of 2 that he wants to become a professional baseball player. It’s an improbable dream. But it’s a dream that may be shared by over a million kids at any given time.

Though I’ve learned bits and pieces about playing baseball at the higher levels over the years, it wasn’t until I read a very detailed chronicle of one player’s journey that it all began to make sense. This player, who I shall call Leo, is a talented and hard-working baseball player. Leo made it all the way from Little League to college baseball.

The hard way.

The baseball journey can be hard
Image courtesy of Robert Montenegro at crookedscoreboard.com

This is part 1 of my retelling of the story of Leo’s journey from Little League to College Baseball.

Index to the Leo Series

Background on this Baseball Story

I found this educational story within a novel-length forum thread of nearly 2000 posts. Detailed posts from Leo’s grandfather are supplemented with questions, advice, and insight from many other baseball-savvy participants. The story starts as Leo enters Little League and has not yet ended, as Leo is in the midst of his college baseball career.

In the rest of this background section I describe how this story evolved, what it came to mean, and how I intend to present it. If you don’t care about background, just skip straight to the beginning of the story.

The lengthy forum thread originally started with Leo’s grandfather asking about 10-year-old pitching velocity and how best to use radar guns in Little League. However, it quickly evolved into a diary of sorts. In the words of Leo’s grandfather (post 115),

I use this site as a sounding board. Since my father died I don’t really have anyone to go to and tell everything that’s happening with my boy. So this is kind of a release for me.

The forum thread on Leo is remarkable not just for its longevity, but for the rich detail and humble honesty of the author. He voices thoughts that most sports parents have at one point or another, but rarely express out loud. The thread is also remarkable for the extensive and often very wise commentary and advice from other posters who had already observed their own child playing from a young age through to college.

By reading through the story in its entirety—either in the original thread, through these blog posts, or both—you will learn a lot about the process of going from Little League, to middle school, to high school, and finally to college baseball. I sure did.

I verified a few key facts related to the story. Is it possible that some details are exaggerated or may not be strictly true to what actually happened? Sure. Few people recall stories with no bias and perfect memory.

However, whether or not the details of this story are perfectly accurate is irrelevant to the many lessons there are to be learned. The lessons are the main point here, not biographical accuracy.

It’s not very easy to read a story told through 2000 forum posts with many side discussions. Hopefully this serialized version will lower the reading barrier, making Leo’s compelling story available to a broader audience.

I am posting this story in installments, with each installment corresponding roughly to a single grade year, September 1 through August 31. This is conveniently close to Leo’s age given his early October birthday, and is also not far off August 1 travel baseball age bracket cutoffs. This first post is the exception as it includes this introduction and Leo’s childhood before the age of 10.

You do not need much baseball knowledge to read and understand this story. The only thing I assume of readers is that they have at least a couple months of experience of seeing a kid play youth baseball. I don’t expect parents to already know what travel ball is, what high school coaches expect, how baseball scholarships work, etc. When such concepts first come up in the story, I define and discuss them.

To respect the privacy of the player and his family, I call the player “Leo” and his grandfather “Wayne.” These are not their real names. I have contacted the actual grandfather, and he has given me his blessing to rewrite the story into this more accessible blog form.

Enjoy!

A Difficult Early Childhood

Leo did not get a lucky start to life. His parents got into trouble with drugs. At the age of 6, he moved in with his grandparents, who raised him and eventually got formal custody of him at the age of 12, after an arduous legal process.

When they first took him in, Grandpa Wayne observed that Leo was a sickly child . . . sad and scared all the time. Grandma and Grandpa loved him dearly and did their best to provide him with a normal childhood. They got him a dog. They encouraged him to make friends. And . . .

Wayne also got him into sports. Leo soon found success and joy in the game of soccer. It quickly became clear that Leo had considerable athletic talent.

Wayne played baseball in his youth and loved the game, so he strongly encouraged Leo to join the local Little League for the spring season when he was 8. Leo was reluctant as he already liked soccer and didn’t see the appeal of baseball. But he agreed to give it a try.

Soon after Leo joined his local Little League, he was hooked. Wayne had fun with it too as he coached Leo’s teams and observed Leo’s rapid progress.

Given Leo’s tough start to life, Wayne thought it would be cool if Leo could get some extra inspiration on the baseball field. So he wrote to the agent of major leaguer Chipper Jones. He explained the situation and asked for words of encouragement. Chipper Jones actually wrote back! He wrote very encouraging words, which truly delighted and inspired Leo for years.

Leo and Wayne practiced a lot together over the next 18 months until . . .

The Little Baseball Star (4th grade, Age 10)

Leo turned 10 in October, shortly after starting a season of “fall ball” baseball, in which kids were the pitchers. By this time, his interest in baseball had turned into a full blown passion. Driven to improve, Leo often practiced 1-2 hours/day in his back yard, playing catch with Wayne or hitting off a tee.

The practice paid off. Leo hit the ball hard in games. Many of them were line drives, and most went to the outfield. Leo completed the fall season with an astounding .933 batting average. In occasional games with older kids pitching, Leo hit much better than most players two years older than him. As coach of Leo’s team, Wayne tracked and knew everyone’s stats.

Leo also fielded and pitched well. Leo became obsessed with hitting 50 MPH on Wayne’s radar gun, even though he was only 4′ 7″ tall and weighed 85 pounds. Without formal training, Leo was not quite able to reach 50 MPH during the fall season. While use of radar guns before high school age is controversial, Wayne noticed that the gun inspired Leo to improve his mechanics.

Leo was without doubt the best player in his age group. Sure, he was a big fish in a small pond, as he lived in an area with poor weather, far away from any major city. Football was much more popular than baseball. The level of baseball play in these kinds of areas is, on average, quite a bit behind populated regions of Florida or California. Travel ball teams at higher skill levels were rare, at least for the younger ages.

I like stats so I’m going to comment about certain statistics from time to time as this story unfolds to provide perspective to those who are still developing a feel for youth baseball stats. Let’s start with pitching velocity and batting average:

Not too many kids throw close to 50 MPH when they’re 4′ 7″ tall and 85 lbs. Out of around 200 (mostly rec ball) pitchers I’ve observed, I can only think of 5 players with that kind of velocity at that that height/weight combination. All the kids I’ve seen throw significantly harder than that were taller and/or heavier, and they were physically advanced for their age (early physical development). Typical velocity for 4′ 7″ tall, 80-90 pound kids is around 35-45 MPH, with the ones who throw over 45 MPH being perceived as hard throwers for their size.

Bushnell Radar Gun, courtesy Bushnell Outdoor Products

Out of hundreds of youth players, I have seen many hit over .500 in rec league (rec league is short for recreation league—as in Little League, PONY league, Cal Ripken, etc.). My son had one season like that and he’s not usually among the league’s top few hitters—a substantial portion of his hits results from weak hits to the left side of the infield which are difficult to field for outs on small fields. However, I have not observed a single player hit .900 against any kind of pitching. In fact, even counting “Reach on Errors” as hits, I haven’t seen a single kid bat over .750 after the start of kid pitch at age 9. A .933 batting average is not just great. It’s extraordinary.

It’s worth keeping in mind that kids physically mature at different rates. If an extraordinary stat at the age of 10 is the result of early physical development, the tables can turn after everyone reaches puberty. Conversely, a small and not very physically advanced player with mediocre stats at the age of 10 will sometimes turn into a superstar 7 years later, after completing puberty, perhaps accompanied by a massive growth spurt. Wayne did understand this, at least intellectually.

Many parents do not understand that early maturation is often the primary reason for a young player’s success. Many parents assume that their high-performing child at the age of 10 is bound for great things—high school baseball for sure, and a really good chance of going beyond. However, in most cases it will turn out that it was just a matter of being developmentally ahead of peers. Puberty is the great equalizer, and once these kids all turn into adults, the ordering of which players have the greatest talent and skill will be completely scrambled.

Despite Wayne’s intellectual knowledge that puberty changes everything, Wayne was pretty excited by Leo’s remarkable performance. A bit too excited. Though Wayne was not a great ball player himself, he loved the game, and baseball was something he bonded with his father over when he was a kid. With Leo obviously a star player, Wayne began to grow very emotionally attached to Leo’s baseball future. Making the high school team down the road seemed a given. Getting a college baseball scholarship after high school seemed like a great possibility. Could Leo go even further than that?

From this point on, Wayne keenly felt every up and down of Leo’s baseball experiences.

Though Wayne was very excited about Leo’s amazing baseball success, he did understand that Leo hadn’t yet faced tough competition. So over the winter, Wayne looked for travel ball opportunities which would expose Leo to a higher level of play.

If you have only the vaguest notion of what travel ball is, there’s a good reason for that. Travel ball can mean a lot of different things. When travel ball first started to catch on a couple decades ago, it was basically a system for selecting the very best players around and giving them an opportunity to play with and against others like them, and perhaps get a higher level of coaching as well.

However, within a few years after travel ball started to become a thing, both coaches and parents got the idea that joining a travel ball team could lead to improved play, perhaps raising slightly-better-than-average rec players to the elite level. Well, not really.

A player with average talent remains a player with average talent whether he plays rec ball or travel. Better coaching and extra repetition will help a player realize his full potential. But travel ball is by no means a guarantee of better coaching than rec ball. I have personally seen many examples of outstanding and poor coaching in both rec leagues and travel ball.

No matter. For many parents, having a son do travel ball feels like a badge of honor. Thus began the great migration from inexpensive, community-oriented rec ball to more costly (and not always better) travel ball.

These days there are travel ball teams of all skill levels, including many that are simply a dad who opts out of rec ball in order to have control over his son’s baseball experience by running a team himself. In some parts of the country, AA travel ball is simply the new rec league. If you’re thinking about travel ball for your own child, you might want to read a much more detailed look at the differences between rec ball and travel ball.

In Leo’s case, travel ball probably made sense given his skill level in comparison with other players and the level of coaching in his rec league. Leo wanted to be challenged and play at a higher skill level.

Wayne did find a travel ball opportunity for Leo. The tryout was in January. Leo did well at the tryout, or so Wayne thought.

But surprisingly, Leo didn’t make the travel team.

Bummer! Wayne and Leo were both very disappointed at first. However, they didn’t feel so bad about it after Wayne observed a practice and noticed that the coaching style for this team involved more yelling than teaching. To quote Wayne (post 40),

We attended one practice that this road team had (the day my boy tried out) and the coach would yell and scream at the players. He was so serious that not a single kid was smiling or having fun on the field.

So maybe it was a blessing in disguise.

It wasn’t until years later that they learned the reason Leo didn’t make the team—Leo was small.

Coaches often select based more on how they think a player will likely develop in the future, rather than how well they play right now. Some coaches are so quick to draw conclusions based on initial body type impressions that they are not even able to accurately observe current performance. This was one of those coaches who automatically assumed that anyone Leo’s size was too small to develop into much of a ball player.

At 4′ 8″, Leo was actually pretty close to the median height for boys his age. But in baseball, being big has advantages. Bigger players on average will hit harder and throw harder. They may be more physically advanced for their age as well, causing them to be more coordinated. Conversely, most small kids tend to have less encouragement and success. Look at any baseball game of 10-year olds, and you will see few if any kids below the median height for their age. Most of the smaller kids have already left the game or never even tried it.

With virtually no small kids in the game, median height kids appear small when compared with other youth baseball players. Some coaches assume that a “small” player will be one of the weaker players until very obviously proven otherwise.

But none of this mattered to Leo. In Wayne’s words (post 69),

I tell you the boy works very hard. I have a big back yard and he is out there every day trying to be the best he can be. Not a single kid on my team does this other than him. I mean my boy really wants to be the best.

After many bullpen sessions spent improving his mechanics in February, Leo managed to throw strikes at 50 MPH with his pitching in March, just as the spring rec ball season got under way. A few weeks later he entered a pitching contest and took first place in his 10-year-old age group with the radar gun flashing 53 MPH. The winner of the 12-year-old age bracket threw only slightly harder.

Despite his average (but small compared to baseball peers) size, Leo’s pitching velocity and batting average were higher than everyone else in his league at his age level, including the biggest players. But that didn’t cause him to rest on his laurels. He also began experimenting with the changeup grip to give him some pitching tools against better hitters.

Leo was also hitting well. Even though he started hitting more grounders and fewer line drives, Leo’s batting average in the age 9-10 group was over .700 for the rec season, with 7 home runs. This was the last year Wayne coached Leo’s rec team. Wayne thought his skills weren’t good enough to take Leo to the next level, and he found coaching his own grandson uncomfortable.

Playing With Older Players (Age 10)

In the middle of May, a 12- to 13-year-old rec team asked Leo to join a game when they had only 8 players. He did well, and they invited him back for more games, as center fielder. He did so well that he became a regular, quickly earning a high spot in the batting order. He hit his first home run off an older pitcher just 2 weeks after starting with this age group. Overall he batted over .500 for the older team, while also contributing on defense.

Leo experienced some “interesting” games during this time. The most memorable was when Leo’s 10-year old rec team (coached by Wayne) played with 2 players short. The opposing coach was gracious enough to lend 2 outfielders until he realized his team was going to get beat, so he not only took the outfielders back, but he also told his players to bunt when infielders played deep to cover some of the outfield. Leo’s team managed to win anyway.

However, Leo’s team did lose against a team later that month when the umpire called very different strike zones depending on which team was batting. Hmmmm . . .

These things happen. Everyone wants to win. It’s just that certain coaches really, really, really want to win . . .

But none of that mattered to Leo’s progress as a ball player. Word began spreading about little Leo with compliments on his beautiful swing, his ability to turn on an inside pitch, and his pitching. His many hours of practice were paying off. 10-year-old Leo even got intentionally walked one time by a pitcher nearly 3 years older than him. His coach said it was the greatest compliment he had ever seen for a player. Leo’s batting average on the older team ended up around .500.

Leo was selected for his league’s all-star team, which played a few games in June and July. He had good pitching success, he had fun, and his team won some and lost some.

Time for a Break (Age 10)

To keep the momentum going, Wayne enrolled Leo in a pitching camp for July, even though Leo expressed a preference for football. Leo went through with the pitching camp and did okay, but he still wanted to play football. Football was by far the most popular sport in this part of the state, and many of his friends were doing it.

Leo wanted to play football again in the fall, but Wayne enrolled him in fall ball. For the first time in a while, Wayne was not a head coach. This was for a slightly older set of kids on a bigger 50/70 field (50′ from pitcher’s mound to home, and 70′ base paths), and Leo was the youngest player there.

Leo’s heart wasn’t in it, and his play suffered a bit. Leo also didn’t get to pitch much at first. However, he eventually earned some pitching time and ended up pitching and hitting well as usual, though not as well has he had earlier in the year. When all was said and done, Leo said he would have rather played football than baseball.

Leo needed a break from baseball, and Wayne didn’t let him have it. Leo was soon to get a break anyway. Turns out—a break was all that Leo needed.

Part 2 of Leo’s story: Travel Ball (age 11, 5th grade)

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.

3 thoughts on “One Player’s Journey from Little League to College Baseball (The Beginning)”

  1. I am cheering Leo on! I’m sad that he didn’t get to try football, even though it’s not my favorite sport. I want to know how he continues to develop physically, and if that ever made a difference or mattered to his high school coach(es). I hope he doesn’t suffer physical trauma, and I’m concerned for the emotional well-being of Wayne. Wayne has been a good dad–my heart is with him. I want Leo to be successful at whatever he chooses to do! I’m torn about Wayne signing him into the travel teams, but valuable lessons are learned through every adversity, & Wayne has tried so hard to provide little Leo with every opportunity for success. Leo’s in tough times for a skilled & smaller player, as part 1 comes to a close…but I have high hopes for his future! Success is not always defined as becoming number one in the batting order, nor having the highest stats. Not that he cannot do that, of course! Oh..the suspense.. Great read, as always, Joe!!
    Simply cannot wait to read Part 2!!!!!

  2. Glad you both like it, Chris and Tiffany. In addition to your two comments, I’ve been getting private emails from people telling how much they are looking forward to future chapters. Everyone wants to know how often I’ll be able to put out new chapters.

    I’m going to publish the 2nd one later today (Friday, March 3) but going forward I’m going to try hard to stick to a weekly schedule, publishing a new chapter every Thursday, which gives people time to read a chapter before their next weekend of baseball. Don’t know if I’ll always achieve Thursday, that but it’s what I’ll be shooting for.

    I have a rough draft all the way through Junior year in high school, which will be the 8th part. Once done with Junior year I expect the rate of publishing will slow way down given that I don’t have anything drafted for Senior year, and also the fact that the number of forum posts increased at that point with many side discussions so it’s harder to pick out the story pieces.

    Anyone who is liking this story, feel free to spread the word to others you think might like it!

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