The business of baseball.

The business of baseball.

Two words come to mind when I think about baseball in December. Winter meetings.

If you’ve never watched the coverage, I recommend doing it at least once.

After that, you may never want to again.

It’s a lot to take in!

I can remember being at a convention for professional athletes and their spouses one off season. We had morning big group sessions, small group sessions, free time, dinner together and night meetings. They kept us busy but it was a great way to disconnect from the world and reconnect with couples going through similar struggles before heading back into another season. Everyone in attendance was part of the professional baseball world at some level and since it was in December, phones were buzzing all over that convention center all weekend long. Agents calling to give their clients updates on where they stood with pending transactions.

One couple in particular, I will never forget. They were in our small group. We were sharing experiences in different cities and with different organizations. Every organization operates differently, which can make the entire professional experience difficult or easy – pending what organization you land in.

As we were wrapping up sharing experiences with the organizations we all represented, he excused himself to answer a phone call. A few minutes later he returned and asked if anyone had experience with (and named his new org). He had been traded. And we all found out at the exact same time his wife did.

Every year when Kevin turns on the winter meetings I’m quickly reminded of one of those “tough lessons” we had to learn quickly when playing. Baseball – at that level – is a business.

A multi-billion dollar business.

As a player you get to play a game you love. But as their employee, the demand is much greater.  

One of the more interesting parts of the Winter Meetings to me is the whole negotiations and trading concept.

I imagine it going something like this behind those closed doors.

A group of men are sitting around a table in their name brand business suits. Their ties are neatly pressed and tucked perfectly into their sports coats. They may have a ball point, executive pen clipped to their chest pocket. It’s probably engraved with some sentimental date or name. Given to them for a Christmas or congratulatory gift from their family.

Their shoes are freshly polished. Their briefcases sit in front of or beside them. They’re filled with scouting reports on players they’re interested in buying or selling.

They’ve got their budget that the team accountant prepared for them with all of the potential “what if’s.” Who they could afford. Who they can’t. And what offers they can make based on their ticket sales, revenue and expenditures from the previous season. Plus, what they project to be their new revenue. The revenue they can expect if they land a guy who not only produces on the field, but also produces more drops into their bank account.

In these meetings they don’t care whose grandma gets to come visit the field because they play close to their hometown or whose kids just made A-honor roll at the school they started attending two years prior when their contract became active with them. They care about two things.

Can they produce what they need on the field to win games and chase a championship?

And will they be worth the money it takes to put them there?

It’s strange really. One big group meeting with the executives of the league who manage the business’ check books. Looking at the players under judgmental and skeptical microscopes of envy deciding their fate based on spreadsheets of data that have been collected since the player was drafted.

Reminds me of the car auctions you see on TV. One car comes up to the stage. They read a description. They give it a few spins. The chatter begins. The paddles go up. Some lucky car guru wins the auction battle. He pays his dues. Takes it home. And the next car comes up to the stage to do it all over again.

In the cars description they don’t tell you what all went into building it. How many hands worked on it. How many knuckles went home bruised from knocking or banging in those tight crevices. They just roll ‘em up and roll ‘em out.

One by one, every car makes its debut. Where it shows could determine what it sells for. Sometimes they go for much more than the owner anticipates. Sometimes they go for much less. And sometimes they go right back to the garage they left.

Except this time its people. Men with heart, emotions and contracts they can’t get out of unless their club chooses. Families along for the ride with the scars they collect along the way. One by one. Evaluated. Negotiated. Contracts sold. Contracts bought.

I have no idea if the way I imagine it is factual. But from my experience it’s probably not too farfetched. 

Now. Go with me if you will down a highway on any given Saturday morning. It’s 8am. We make a left hand turn and there we’re greeted by a line of vehicles. With each dollar and wristband exchange between them and the gate keeper, the line moves forward.

Our pool play game is set for 9:30am. Show time is 1hour before so once we get through the gate we find parking by our field. We unload the trunk into a wagon and make sure our player has their bag, their cleats, their hat, their water and their jersey’s tucked in before we all scurry off in the direction of the cages or the field we were told to meet at in our team group chat.

We spend the next few hours watching our game. Then our next game. Maybe there’s a game in between ours so we sit around and wait or maybe we’re lucky and we get to play back to back so we can head back to our home to finish weekend chores if we’re playing locally. Or, to our hotel for homework, rest, or bonding time with the team if we’re playing out of town.

As we walk back to our vehicle we pass more teams and more parents and more players doing the same thing we are. Going to and from the fields. Playing games. Getting seeded. And trying to manage the chaos of it all with a smile on our face and a pep in our step. Dressed in our best “raising ballers” attire, trying to keep the ketchup and mustard from the hotdog we just downed from the concession stand off the new baseball seamed Keds we had Prime deliver to us the day before the tournament.

Some of those parents and teams we pass by are part of organizations. Some of them are solo teams put together by groups of friends. But sprinkled in the mix of them all, in all age groups all across that rec center is a group of those business suite wearing negotiators.

Except this time they sit in bleachers, not around tables. They stand in huddles behind home plate. Arms crossed. Sunglasses on. Team attire from head to toe. There’s no questioning who they belong to.

They don’t carry briefcases, they carry backpacks. BP buckets and coolers.

And instead of being armed with the spreadsheet data from their best accounting pros, they’ve got Gamechanger and Facebook.

They follow other teams and look at their stats throughout the weekend. If the players they want to join them are at that tournament, they go watch. If they can’t do it, they send a parent from the team to.

If they aren’t at that same tournament, they keep up with the team they play for by watching whatever scoring app that team uses in between their games. 

Like scouts for the big boys, they collect their own data in their own way and wait for the opportune time to make their move. To present their case. To convince the parent to “do what’s best” for their player and join them.

Eventually a representative from the team or organization calls the parents to deliver a puffed up smoke and mirrored evaluation in an effort to win them over. They offer for their player to play the position they want, with no bench time and for free or a heavily discounted price. Fun fact, it’s never for free. It’s at the expense of the other parents on the team but that’s probably irrelevant.

Eerily familiar to that table full of executives.

The difference here is that these meetings don’t happen in a three day designated period in December. They don’t involve million dollar contracts or shmancy convention center aesthetics and catering the average American family wouldn’t spend money on.

They take place in the cabs of trucks. At the fields beside concession stands. At a coffee shop or mom and kids play date at the local park. On the phones of average, blue collar men and women trying to make roster trades on their 10U team.

They trade kids. Not men.

And that, my friends, is the ugly business of youth travel ball.

Makes your stomach turn a bit when you read it like that doesn’t it?

That may not be the intent and it may not be that dramatic, but if you’ve been around the fields for more than a season you know it to be true. Because you’ve seen or been a part of something similar at least once. Probably more.

There are many things that have shocked me about this life on the diamond. Many of those things I’ve learned to accept as part of the job. This is one of those things that I can’t.

I can’t get used to watching coaches treat youth players like a transaction.

I can’t get used to parents allowing it.

& I hope my conscience keeps it that way.

Do things like this happen? Yes.

Are they maliciously intended? Honestly, I don’t believe so.

I think at times we get so caught up in being the best, winning the most, out beating the rival down the street, and being a part of something that’s desirable within the community that we forget one very important thing. They’re kids.

We are the adults. We should do better.

But we’re also humans who are flawed. We’re adults who like to compete. We’re easily distracted by rivalry and praise and in the process don’t always make the best decisions.

When the focus shifts, even the tiniest bit, they pay for it.

It’s easy to get caught up in the moment. It’s easy to allow the tongue to slip and say more than it should. It’s easy to compete in the details of the roster instead of on the field.

But it’s never right.

Somewhere along the way we’ve gotten lost in the demands of travel ball. We’re constantly pursuing something that we don’t know how to obtain because we aren’t even sure what we’re chasing after.

We want our kids to develop but we haven’t clearly defined what development is or what it should look like.

We want our kids to learn how to compete but we refuse to allow them to fail.

We want our kids to make lifelong friends and learn how to navigate being part of a group but we’re always looking to swap jerseys. And we’ll never admit it, but we have a hard time accepting another player outshining ours.

We think we believe in the concepts of fair play and the best man taking the field but if our kid isn’t getting the time we think they deserve we blame the coach for having favorites and immediately advertise them as a pickup player looking to get some more reps in the imaginary travel ball portal.

We want to put together a competitive team that’s made up of likeminded, exceptionally talented kids that push one another to be their best and learn to work through adversity together but we will drop one the moment they mess up or someone “better” comes along.

We want that competitive team for our kids but we refuse to dedicate the time and energy it takes to maintain it.

It can be a slippery slope that starts in the smallest of ways.

Many of these are just examples of how down in the trenches travel ball can get.

Some you’ve seen. Hopefully most you haven’t.

But as the coaches.

As the parents.

As the adults, we have an obligation to the game.

We have an obligation to the players.

We have an obligation to the kids.

Compete on the field. Give them opportunities to fail and expect them to. They will make mistakes. You made mistakes at their age. You still make mistakes now.

Trust that their ability to overcome those mistakes comes when they’re given the chance to prove to themselves that they can.

And when you’re no longer on the field in battle with the opposition, understand that they have the same obligation you do.

To train players.

To develop people.

To grow the game.

That’s it.

If our focus doesn’t revolve around those three things at all times at the youth level – we’ve failed.

We train, develop and grow nothing other than our own pride and ego.

We had our chance. Now it’s theirs.

Just because there’s businesses within youth sports doesn’t mean youth sports have to become the business.

Your player isn’t a transaction.

Your coach isn’t an agent.

At its core, the heart of the game isn’t a business because it can’t be bought, sold or traded.

Don’t make the mistake of allowing yourself to be.