Club Teams Flourish, But the Bases are Empty for Little Leagues

Towns strain to fill baseball rosters as club teams nab the best players.

Members of the New Jersey Nationals, a North Caldwell-based club team, practice hitting off a tee during winter workouts at 360 Fitness, an indoor facility in Fairfield.
Members of the New Jersey Nationals, a North Caldwell-based club team, practice hitting off a tee during winter workouts at 360 Fitness, an indoor facility in Fairfield.
Photo by Chuck Solomon

When the New York Yankees went on their surprise playoff run last fall that brought them one game from the World Series, New Jersey’s own Todd Frazier was a major part of their success.

And nearly every time Frazier went to bat, fans were reminded of his part in the great Toms River Little League World Series championship team of 1998 that defeated Japan and put the Ocean County town on the worldwide youth-baseball map.

But if Frazier were a rising 12-year-old phenom today, he might well have skipped the local town league team in favor of one of the many private travel or club teams that are exploding on the scene in the Garden State—and turning local youth leagues upside down.

“Little Leagues are losing numbers,” says Pete Avallone, president of Toms River Little League. He puts the average decline in town league participation at about 35 percent statewide and blames at least part of the drop-off on club teams.

In the past, town leagues for boys ages 8-15 dominated local diamonds. Leagues played spring and summer schedules. Those with ties to official Little League Baseball or the Cal Ripken or Babe Ruth organizations might send a team to state and national tournaments, the best known being the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, where Frazier and his Toms River teammates made their mark.

Such town leagues usually require players to live in the area. Parents volunteer as coaches and manage league activities. Fees generally top out at $200 per season. Most stick to spring and summer ball, allowing youngsters to play other team and individual sports.

But the glory days of town leagues may be over.

In the past decade, dozens of private clubs—many of them for-profit businesses—have been signing up top performers from town-run leagues. They operate with little or no oversight and, unlike official Little Leagues, they have no cautionary ceilings on playing time or pitch counts. Some require tryouts; others take anyone who can pay the fees.

Club teams also affect local programs in soccer, basketball, lacrosse and other sports. But for the moment, observers say, local baseball programs are taking the hardest hit.

For many players, club participation is a year-round commitment, with spring, summer and fall schedules, as well as winter training.

“If you make one of our teams, we are expecting you to be with us all winter, to play with us in the spring, to play with us in the summer and play with us in the fall,” says Chris Bagley, co-owner of Locked-in Baseball of Cedar Knolls, which launched in 2010 and fields 15 club teams each year for age 10 through high school. Bagley adds, however, that kids have the option to skip seasons that conflict with other commitments.

The price is steep. Club play can cost $2,000-$3,000 per year. Add to that the fees (and time) for travel, uniforms and tournaments.

“[Club teams] have taken something that was historically not-for-profit and made it for profit,” says Ed Thornton, a veteran coach and league administrator for Babe Ruth League baseball in Morristown.

When town leagues lose players, they also lose teams and volunteer coaches. That diminishes the opportunity for less affluent families to have their children play organized ball, coaches contend. “The kids have suffered,” says Thornton, “and the parents have suffered because they are paying through the nose.”

“The most disturbing trend is the increasingly younger age where these clubs are having an impact,” says Kate Schmidt, director of recreation and cultural affairs in South Orange, whose youth leagues also serve Maplewood. “It had been affecting the 13-year-old age group. Now, it’s at the 11- and 12-year-old group,” says Schmidt.

Dave Rosenberg, 13-year president of the North Brunswick Baseball and Softball Association and a 24-year league veteran, had about 500 players when he took over in 2005. These days, his regional league draws about 300 kids. Last summer, his roster was so thin that he could not field a 13-plus team and had to align with a private club to give them a chance to play.

Considering the costs, why are so many families opting for club play?

Private teams promise more specialized training, more playing time and games, a higher level of competition, and greater exposure to high school, college and even pro recruiters.

“There is a whole other level of teaching,” says Duke Baxter, CEO of Zoned Baseball in Bridgewater, which started in 2002 with baseball instruction and batting cages and added club teams five years ago. “We live, breathe and teach baseball.”

Baxter says his team, the Redhawks, has grown from four teams in 2012 to 18 in 2017, but without much recruiting.

“It’s not the club teams that are stealing kids, it is the kid who wants a little more and comes to us,” he contends. “You are paying that money to be surrounded by 17 coaches who are teaching you to be better every day.”

Professional coaching, says Baxter, is key to enjoying the sport. “You have a lot of these guys who volunteer, and it is great that they do it,” says Baxter, “but if you don’t know how to run it properly, you make the game boring.”

John Bravette, founder of the New Jersey Nationals, a North Caldwell-based club team, says all kinds of families flock to the club experience. “Some parents look for the edge,” says Bravette, “and others have kids that just love baseball.”

Bravette, a former Seton Hall University baseball standout who also coaches at Seton Hall Prep, fields four or five spring teams, seven or eight summer teams and four or five fall teams, with fees ranging from $600 to $1,800 per season, depending on the level of training, tournaments and other support.

Curt Dahl, owner of the New Jersey Elite Warriors in Watchung, created his club teams two years ago after working with the Watchung youth baseball group.

“A lot of my parents wanted [their kids] to play more games, and I wanted to provide it for them,” says Dahl. These are kids, says Dahl, who enjoy the fundamentals of baseball. “They wanted to play more competitively and practice more.”

Mike Gallo, co-owner of Extra Innings in Whippany, fields mostly fall teams. He compares his players and their extra training to youngsters who focus on singing, dance or acting lessons—even academics.

“Kids are doing that type of thing in piano or theater,” says Gallo. “Kids who want good test scores are getting more [tutoring] help than before.”

More might not always be better when it comes to youth sports. The year-round play and one-sport specialization prevalent in the club-team universe—as well as fewer restrictions on playing time and pitch counts—have raised concerns in the medical community about overuse injuries.

“I’ve seen a much higher incidence of these injuries every year in the past 10 years,” says Dr. Daniel A. Shaw, an orthopedic surgeon in Westfield who specializes in sport injuries. He opposes one-sport specialization at a young age. “The inability of having an off-season can increase the likelihood of injury,” he declares.

Shaw says shoulder and elbow injuries are the most common results of excessive baseball play. Stress fractures are a particular concern—especially for young pitchers.

He views parents as part of the problem. “I have some parents who are reluctant to bring their players in because they are afraid you will shut [their kids] down,” says Shaw, “but not getting diagnosed, they take longer to heal.”

Dr. David A. Feigley, director of the Rutgers University Youth Sports Research Council, also has concerns about specialization at an early age. These concerns, he says, are supported by research.

“When you specialize, you run the risk of overuse injuries; because you use the same muscles over and over again,” says Feigley. “They are not accidental injuries, they come about from practicing too hard over and over.”

The situation is compounded for players—again, especially pitchers—who commit to both a club team and their local town programs.

“Little League enforces a pitch count,” says Dave Edwards, past president of the Hamilton Township Recreation Baseball Association Little League. “We have no control over what they do on the club teams. We try to educate the parents; they are the constant. They have to know what the pitch count is.”

Not every club team experience is a winner.

Sports-parenting advocate Rick Wolff notes that club teams have no guiding authority such as the NCAA or the NJSIAA. “This industry is not regulated, not overseen by any state or federal branch,” says Wolff, whose WFAN radio program, The Sports Edge, focuses on youth and high school sports issues. “It is really like the wild, wild west. Anyone can start a team.”

Cathy Franz, a Hillsborough mother of three, says her son Ryan, now 14, went through several club programs before they found a club that fit. One was particularly bad.

“We played a fall season for them, and it was the worst experience of my life,” she says. “The coaches were jackasses.”

Eventually, Franz says, they found the Elite Warriors, and Ryan is again enjoying the sport. “I would like him to play in college if he can,” says Franz. “But he loves it, and that is why I want him to play.”

Other club-team parents report similar mixed experiences.

“It’s a world that needs careful navigation and healthy cynicism, because everyone promises you the moon,” says Drew Dix of Maplewood, whose son, Eliot, is now a standout at Columbia High School after getting much of his training through club teams beginning at age 9.

“The good club teams.” says Dix, “will really key on your strengths and weaknesses and help you develop.”

Now Dix has his eye on a possible Division 1 or 2 college scholarship for Eliot. “If he works hard,” says Dix, “I think the sky’s the limit.”

The poster child for the impact of club teams is Joey Erace of Mullica Hill. At 10, Joey has his own YouTube channel, thousands of Instagram followers, and requests for endorsements, according to Time magazine, which made Joey the cover boy for a September 4, 2017, story about youth baseball. Time reports that the Erace family has spent tens of thousands on Joey’s budding baseball career, including a $15,000 backyard hitting cage and a $100-per-hour hitting coach.

Money is not a motivator for every club team. New Jersey Axemen of Wayne is a not-for-profit operation, says Glenn Polansky, who cofounded the club in 2012 in part because his local town league had only T-ball for his then 7-year-old son.

“We put the money into the kids,” says Polansky. “That is the difference. A lot of these others do it just for the money.”

Still, with weekend tournaments that can run $800–$1,200, and a fee of $700 for a spring season, Axemen costs are high. “We fundraise a lot so it does not come out of pocket,” says Polansky. The league also gets sponsorship support from a variety of sources.

Fundraising also helps for-profit clubs provide scholarships to select players who can’t afford the fees. Baxter of the Zoned Redhawks says his club raised $28,000 for scholarships last year.

The epitome of club baseball in New Jersey is Diamond Nation of Flemington, which boasts a 65-acre facility with seven playing fields and large indoor practice and training areas.

Launched 20 years ago as the Jack Cust Baseball Academy, the organization initially offered winter batting-cage training. Namesake Jack Cust, a former Somerville High School baseball star who played 10 years in the major leagues, runs the operation with his brothers, Mike, who serves as general manager, and Kevin, who runs the Diamond Jacks travel teams. Both were also drafted by big-league teams. (Jack Cust Baseball Academy still operates across the street from Diamond Nation.)

Diamond Nation has grown to 200 players on the Diamond Jacks teams. Most play year-round.

“All of our staff are guys that have played at a high level, know the game well and coach well,” says Mike Cust. “There is no hidden agenda.” While fees are high (“It is very expensive to run these facilities,” says Cust), the organization says it provides a significant number of player scholarships.

Along with the training programs and club teams, Diamond Nation is a major site for tournaments, which draw players from as many as 36 states, mostly in the Northeast.

“Tournaments have become our bread and butter,” says Cust. Among the Jersey-bred future big-leaguers who participated in Diamond Nation tournaments are Anaheim Angels superstar Mike Trout and Boston Red Sox pitcher Rick Porcello.

Cust knows that most of his players will never get to the major leagues, but that doesn’t mean top high school and college programs are out of reach for the best young players.

“College tuition is not getting cheaper,” says Cust. “If they can offset that with scholarships and this is a way to do that, why not?”

Joe Strupp is a Maplewood-based freelance writer.

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