Recently I wrote an article expressing my preference for club events as opposed to showcase-style events. My comparisons centered on the Connie Mack World Series and Area Code Games, which take place simultaneously most summers and immediately precede Aflac weekend, which is now a Perfect Game event. My preference for club ball stemmed from my belief that real games with substance and meaning beyond simply recruitment, scholarship dollars, and the draft is not only better for fans and players, but also actually leads to more effective and accurate player evaluation. I personally find this to be beyond debate. However, club baseball is certainly not devoid of flaws, and in some ways may be reflective of an accelerating problem within amateur baseball.
Like many large baseball events, the CMWS houses its visiting players with host families. This both provides players a convenient way of getting from place to place and being attended to so that their focus can be on the game during their stay as well as a way of saving money. Nearly all baseball families with the means to host players join in actively in the process especially those households with young children. As a child my family housed players for the CMWS. We typically housed players from the West region since during my childhood New Mexico was a member of that region of AABC.
Since then New Mexico has been moved to the South Plains region. My recollection of what the teams from the West region represented displays club baseball in the 90’s as essentially a collection of players of similar skill level who primarily played events within a 500-mile radius of where the squads were based. This in no way limited what the talent levels of the teams constituted, but simply reflected the quality of play within their region. Understandably our hosting of the West players typically meant that we hosted players from southern California, the finest recruiting area in the U.S.A. for the last 50 years. Nevertheless, these players, when asked by a pre-pubescent version of me how they got so good, simply replied nearly unanimously, “We play great players every single night.” They didn’t participate in big tournament prior to the West regional or have 40 uniform combinations. They went to the yard and played. That’s it. It was that simple to them. When asked where they did this, they told me, “In our summer Connie Mack league.” I was stunned.
In Farmington there are at most four competitive U18 teams annually – typically two. Over half of the teams in the local Connie Mack league are capable of providing no real challenge to anyone who even came close to starting for a high school varsity. However, the structure of the league every season is one in which each team must play each other team at least once. It is possible that, given the schedule and the unfortunate and incorrect illusion that playing at Ricketts during the months of June and July is somehow of more value than simply playing comparably talented and skilled players as many times and at as many venues as possible, the best two teams in the league will not play each other a single time. What’s more is that the top U16 teams are often not permitted to play any of the top U18 squads. It is possible that a team like the Strike Zone Cardinals or Naataanii, good club teams with quality showings at various nationally renown tournaments, might go the entire month of June without playing even a single meaningful game in Farmington. So obviously it is difficult to comprehend playing great players night in and night out, as is the case in leagues like the Lone Star league in Dallas, the East Cobb league in Atlanta, and the South Coast league in southern California. Farmington baseball is not unique in this regard, but it may be the least capable of solving the problem due to the requirements in place that must be fulfilled to earn the hosting rights of the CMWS.
To somehow ensure that the premier talent in town is challenged as often as possible, teams play in numerous tournaments nationwide throughout the fall and summer from around the ages of 12 through age 18. Obviously these events require money for travel, hotels, tournament entry fees, and food, and obviously not all of the players who ability-wise should be on the top team are rostered by these squads. This has far-reaching implications for players of pre-high school age since it stunts their development relative to their peers. Because the level of play in local leagues has become so stratified, a product of the players with the means to travel doing so in effort to find competitive games, many youth nationwide have found little joy in the game since they get manhandled nightly by those teams who travel. These players who either lack the means to travel or are simply not among the best in town as young children are weeded out early, and the quality of the local leagues is perpetually downgraded as a result.
The threat to the game as a whole is found in the fact that the earlier and earlier that players are weeded out, the smaller and smaller the pool of players becomes such that many potentially talented players are removed prior to adolescence. Who among us is the same guy now that we were when we were 10? It should be blatantly obvious that this poses massive potential problems and is far from exclusive to Farmington, although in all cases the effect is felt more the smaller the population. The danger of high profile club baseball events is that it belongs only to the players, teams, families, and programs that can afford it. This group is certainly not inclusive of all players whose ability justifies inclusion in this group. The beauty of Area Code is that it belongs to everyone who has shown a scout that they deserve to be there theoretically based solely on ability. But what happens if a player was weeded out before he could show a scout that he deserves the exposure because he couldn’t pay to play as a pre-pubescent child?
Providing players with club opportunities and access to events like the CMWS and World Wood Bats is a service to the players and to the game as a whole, but efforts must be made to ensure that players who lack the funds to take part in travel baseball prior to school ball age is reached are not lost to the game before sponsors can take over, which usually happens at the ages of 16-18.