Baseball Is Dying: How Successful Youth Programs Can Bring It Back
A baseball instructor and former coach shares how he turned around a high school program and the importance of keeping the sport alive for the next generation.
At the age of 23, I was fortunate enough to land the position of health and physical education teacher and head baseball coach at a high school just north of the Philadelphia border. In my spare time, I was still playing baseball in a summer league, working baseball camps and volunteer coaching within the youth program in my Philadelphia neighborhood. I was, and still am, all in on baseball. My passion came through in my coaching style and I was as competitive as my players, five to six years my younger.
I would get angry with them when we didn’t win and expect them to make the plays I was accustomed to seeing executed. I inherited a great program that lacked talent. We did all of the right things except win baseball games. We worked hard in the preseason; we did well academically as a unit (on average, one player would face disciplinary trouble with the school per year); I attended coaching conferences and observed collegiate practices. We improved after my first year but never turned the corner to make the district playoffs. Frustrated and dejected, I turned to veteran coaches for advice. What they suggested would change the trajectory of our program, my professional career and my life.
I Started Up a Summer Baseball Camp
The advice I received was simple: “If you want to stop getting your ass kicked, you gotta start working with the township’s youth programs.” In other words, players were coming to the high school program underprepared and underdeveloped. This doesn’t mean the local programs were dreadful—in fact, they were the opposite. They were run by great people with incredible intentions. They truly were there for the kids. But they were missing volunteers with strong baseball acumen. The parents worked hard and put in the hours but they weren’t able to implement the fundamentals at a high level. They were, however, up for learning. After realizing this I decided to offer a coaches clinic, which was well attended and appreciated. It also raised money for our program and gave us a chance to show off for the next generation. A “culture” was in process.
I then figured out how to help the players directly. I didn’t have the time during the season, so I started having conversations with community members and came to the conclusion that a summer camp would be ideal. All of the suburban fields were taken or too expensive, so I turned to a Philadelphia Department of Recreation leader and asked for his help. Along with his support, he offered me fields a few miles away, making an easy commute for our future student-athletes. I was also happy to include players from my home neighborhood. My own youth program did so much for me, so I was happy to provide a helpful resource and a chance to improve their baseball experience.
The camp was unique because it featured experienced players and new players from the city’s summer camps. Needless to say, our afternoon intramural games were lopsided. The experienced players hit bombs and made all of the plays. The inexperienced players tried not to get hurt and struggled to make contact. The imbalance led to boring games and a lack of interest. In desperate need to spice things up, I started implementing lead-up games like run the bases and stickball. As luck would have it, I had a conversation with a colleague about my problem and he recommended I use a program called Quickball, which he used while working with the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation. I agreed, gave it a shot and thought it was the most amazing baseball enhancement program I had seen within my short career.
A modified baseball program that uses a unique, foam ball, Quickball plays “true” in comparison to a baseball. The equipment is user-friendly, safe and allows for fast play. As the name entails, it is a quicker form of baseball. It teaches the fundamentals while not having to slow down the process. This small adaptation changed the quality of the camp and brought more kids out to the yard to play. The increased enrollment provided our high school team with the opportunity to rent time in an indoor baseball facility for winter training. Most importantly, new girls and players of color were enrolling. This was not only a breakthrough for our local baseball program, but a breakthrough for baseball in general. Soon, I became passionate about showing it off to everyone.
We Built a High School Baseball Program With Strong Relationships
As my relationship with younger players strengthened, and my current players became part of a program that provided them with experiences on and off the field, we began winning. The younger players began to dream about playing for our high school, and their parents fostered those dreams and committed to the program long before their sons would step foot onto our field. Eventually, we began an alumni association, attended ESPN’s annual national spring warm-up in Disney World, added a shed and bullpen to our complex and always had great gear to lift school spirit.
I consider myself extremely fortunate and blessed to have been the head coach of that program. The school hired me to just run a good practice, adhere to the state and district guidelines, make sure my players were eligible and represent the school in a positive manner while competing in games. Winning was a bonus, but not expected. But we did all of the above, and the accomplishments are what I cherished most in my professional and personal life. Every one of our players graduated; we had a handful of players go on to play collegiate baseball; several earned a baseball scholarship; we were a consistent playoff team; and in my last year as head coach, we won a conference championship. I proudly hang the trophies, game balls and plaques from 2014 in my office today.
Seven years removed, now a full-time dad, youth coach and part-time baseball instructor, I am more proud of things I took for granted while I was in the mix. All of our players went on to do well in life—they became great dads, husbands, and are now coaching or contributing to baseball in some way. Our staff worked diligently on stressing the importance of positive relationships and supporting each other. We held them accountable and addressed the little things that broke our team rules. My most talented player was the most difficult one and frustrated all of us. He made it through only one season of high school baseball but eventually played professionally. I never knew if the boys resented him or loved him. Unfortunately, he passed away tragically several years after graduating. At his funeral, I saw how much he was loved when nearly all of his high school teammates came to pay respects. We laughed, cried, reminisced and caught up. I was devastated and heartbroken but found solace in knowing our program had gifted the boys with some of life’s greatest memories, toughest lessons and forever friendships. You cannot emulate the life lessons and experiences baseball provides.
Youth Baseball Programs Have to Invest in All Players
On a broader scale, it tortures me to see the game struggling to retain participation and fans. There has been a shift from committing to the life lessons baseball provides its participants. Instead, parents and coaches have entered our youth players in the “Race to Nowhere!” Youth travel teams and “elite” programs at the high school level have trumped organizations like the Cal Ripken League, Little League, Babe Ruth, Connie Mack, American Legion and good old-fashioned high school baseball. Players retire at ages ten-to-12 if they don’t make the “elite” travel team. I understand there needs to be an outlet for the gifted and talented, but that’s easy to implement.
All this being said, the traditional programs are complicit in baseball’s decline as well. Travel programs are popular because they often eliminate “Daddy Ball” politics and seek the best players without regard to which local office their father holds, or which board member neighbors their child. The local programs are usually run by older men that enjoy control as much as baseball. This pushes families away that aren’t in the “clique.” It’s messy. So many families and players are pushed to the brink. Often, they choose to try something else or work their way through the travel circuit as a mercenary, filling roster vacancies or providing depth to a tournament team's pitching staff.
Today, I lead a travel program in a 10,000-square-foot facility I co-own in suburban Philadelphia. Our goal is to invest in our players, nurture them and provide the ability to compete freely without fearing instant replacement. We communicate about the lineup, where the kids fit in, and what is needed to achieve the short-term and long-term goals we challenge them to set each offseason. We also work with them around their other sports and school baseball schedule. So far, it’s been great: There has been almost zero turnover and the parents seem happy. Most importantly, the players are enjoying themselves and really growing as athletes and young men. It’s not perfect—we try to get our players to see past “pop times,” “exit velo” and “rankings. We balance what is necessary in today’s game and what is most important to our core values.
For MLB to Grow, It Must Put in the Work
Major League Baseball is now partnering with major youth and high school organizations, working to increase revenue and interest. Telling every player they have a chance to make it to “The Show” generates a lot of money. But what happens when reality hits? Will they love the game and organization that led them down a path to nowhere? Will parents regret spending $100,000 for a child’s youth and high school career to earn a spot on a Division III roster?” (No offense to any level of college baseball, but only Division I and II programs provide scholarships.) Ultimately, after their journey, will kids still love baseball? Go to games? Introduce it to their children?
Apparently, they don’t, and our sport is dying for it.
MLB talks about improving youth baseball and inclusion. They create events to “return baseball to the inner-city.” But they don’t invest time and on-the-field consistency for programs to take root. They only tend to work with licensed partners, which pay them a fee to use the MLB brand. This eliminates a lot of great programs and people that are truly committed to growing the game. In order to make baseball more accessible and attractive, there needs to be more creative programming, consistent events and community outreach that involves more than equipment drop-offs and a photoshoot. It also wouldn’t hurt if baseball coaches, hitting gurus and professional players focused their energy on working with young players rather than competing in pissing contests.
My high school coaching experience was special and resulted in some winning baseball and great memories. Our success wasn’t because of the coaches' clinics, the summer camps, Quickball or the trips to Disney. It was the time, effort and relationships that were built along the way that made it possible for our program to accomplish the goals we set each season. We put our values at the forefront and focused on leading our players to be the best baseball players they could be based on their God-given abilities. Baseball is America’s game, and as long as lifers like me are involved, we’ll always work to get more kids to play ball. At the end of the day, that’s what it’s always been about.