T.J. Binder has played with a traveling baseball team since he was an 8-year-old, and the Ooltewah High School senior played this summer on the Tennessee team that won the Junior Sunbelt Classic in McAlester, Okla.
Select baseball was the way for him, his parents and his younger brother to go.
“Travel ball has always been a very positive experience for T.J. and our family,” said his mother, Tonya Binder. “It’s a way of life for us, and we wouldn’t trade the experiences of travel ball for anything.”
The family has traveled as far as Cooperstown, N.Y., for baseball games and makes annual summer treks through South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Kentucky.
“Our entire summer schedule revolves around travel baseball,” she said.
That also has brought college recruiters to the Binders’ doorstep, and although NCAA rules prohibited any personal contact before July 1, T.J. already has heard from Troy University, Southern Mississippi, Kansas State and Jacksonville State.
“One of the primary reasons [for recruiting contacts] comes from playing for the [Chattanooga] Cyclones. You definitely get seen playing for them,” T.J. said.
Other select-team opportunities for area high-school-age players include the Chattanooga Baseball Club, the Fury, the Tennessee Twisters and newcomer Chattanooga South. The Twisters have had the likes of new University of Tennessee players Jared Allen, Brandon Zajac and Jake Rowland.
Most of those teams are primarily for players interested in pursuing college and/or pro careers. There also are younger-age groups such as the Mustangs, run by Stump Martin. The difference between the Cyclones organization, which was put together in 1993 by local attorney George Koontz, and others is that it is pretty much a year-round operation.
Each of the groups at one time or another has been criticized as being detrimental to recreation league baseball programs, but is that really true?
“I think so, although some of the select teams don’t play rec-league teams,” offered Harrison’s Bobby Dunn, a national vice president for the Dizzy Dean organization. “There are some good select teams out there. The ones I have a problem with are the ones where daddies start a team so their kid can play a certain position or bat in a certain spot.
“Some of these teams are being coached by guys who never did more than dress out for a varsity high school game. I don’t know how many kids you could take off some of those so-called select teams that could go and actually make a real select team.”
There are few leagues left in Chattanooga, though, after players pass through the 12-under age group.
“Travel ball has replaced rec ball in the Chattanooga area, especially in the upper age groups,” said Chattanooga State assistant Joe Wingate, a former Ooltewah High head coach who coaches a CBC team. “There is still some American Legion ball in Middle and West Tennessee.
“The rec leagues have dropped for a combination of reasons, including moms and dads getting their feelings hurt when little Johnny doesn’t make the all-star team and some people trying legitimately to find better competition. If you talk with somebody that had something to do with Middle Valley, East Brainerd or other youth associations, you’d probably find that each had not one all-star team but five, so nobody is disappointed. That is simply a reflection of our society in general.”
Signal Mountain High’s Bumper Reese has coached in youth leagues and for the Cyclones and the Mustangs. He has seen a decline in youth league baseball, although both of his sons started in the Red Bank Dixie Youth program before moving to select ball.
“The [youth baseball] numbers are way down,” Reese said. “You call some of these guys in the rec leagues and they may blame select baseball, but, honestly, there aren’t as many kids playing.”
Select baseball is for those truly dedicated to the sport. Even for the summer-only teams, fees can range anywhere from $400 in the younger age groups to upward of $800 for the older players.
The CBC, which has 15-, 16- and 18-under teams, charges about $700. Most of the teams play only tournaments, and a common entry fee for one tournament is around $600. The fee for the Perfect Game tournaments outside of Atlanta is $1,750 with a five-game guarantee.
“We charge what it costs to play — uniforms, tournaments and paying our coaches,” Wingate said. “There is no slush fund. We tell our parents this is what it costs and here’s where the money is going.”
That initial expense doesn’t cover the cost of travel, hotel rooms and meals.
“Parents can easily spend $1,500,” Reese said.
There is room for players to do both rec ball and select ball.
“We have some like that, and as long as they don’t miss a league game or a league function we don’t care,” Dunn said. “A lot of our teams don’t play on Saturdays for that reason.”
Koontz said he never intended to hinder rec-league participation. He started the Cyclones because he wasn’t satisfied with the baseball options available for his then 15-year-old son.
Though they are a summer and fall organization, the Cyclones play about the same number of games in those two seasons as other select teams will play in the early summer.
“We don’t play nearly as many in the summer as East Cobb [Ga.] teams,” Koontz said. “But our purpose is to help kids who have a burning desire to play college or pro baseball reach their aspirations. We don’t try and recruit, and we don’t encourage anyone who doesn’t have a strong desire to play college baseball to play with us.
“We aren’t for kids who are just trying to get better for high school baseball. We’re trying to find the guys who want to put the time in year around, and that’s not to say that other [organizations] aren’t helping kids get to college, because they are.”
Select teams have a much stronger grip on fastpitch softball, according to Dunn.
“You have select teams playing against rec teams in softball, and it has killed girls’ softball,” he said. “I don’t know of a rec team playing by the end of July.”
There is a happy medium. Speaking as a high school coach, Reese said he didn’t care who his players played for.
“Some high school coaches get furious with select ball and say, ‘Play for my team or you’re done,’” he said. “What I want is for them to play summer baseball. I don’t care where. I just want them to play.”
Koontz believes there are other benefits for players and families that sacrifice the dollars, effort and time in select programs.
“This includes AAU basketball, soccer and softball,” he said, “but it has been my experience in doing this that our players and parents, as opposed to the general public, have a much closer relationship. The kids are sacrificing and working, and they seem to have an immense appreciation for the sacrifice their parents are making to help them reach their goals.”
Ward Gossett is an assistant sports editor and writer for the Times Free Press. Ward has a long history in Chattanooga journalism. He actually wrote a bylined story for the Chattanooga News-Free Press as a third-grader. He Began working part-time there in 1968 and was hired full time in 1970. Ward now covers high school athletics, primarily football, wrestling and baseball and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga wrestling. Over a 40-year career, he has covered ...