The nation’s newest elite baseball players are courted like free agents, flown cross-country for big games and featured on TV. Bidding wars break out over the most coveted stars, who resemble Major Leaguers in many ways.
Except for their age.
At the highest levels of 8- to 14-year-old travel baseball, schoolboy superstars are plied with privileges and showcased at pricey events while less-gifted players and their families try to keep pace by spending a fortune — as much as $24,000 annually — on tournaments, equipment and lessons.
Big League dreams, ambitious coaches and massive tournament profits have fueled a youth sports phenomenon that bears little resemblance to the local Little League.
This big-money version of the youth game is thriving in South Florida, home to hundreds of travel teams.
“Kids 9 years old … are professional athletes right now, because this stuff is so unregulated,” said Ron Filipkowski, a former federal and state prosecutor in Sarasota who was a travel ball father, coach and director. “Travel ball at the elite level is the Wild, Wild West of sports. There are no rules, no laws.”
Scant regulation combined with an endless stream of money-making tournaments have created a high-pressure world of non-stop, year-round baseball, where youngsters driven by coaches, tournament organizers or their parents may play in more games than some adult pros. Some will end up on operating tables before they are out of high school, or get burned out and quit, medical experts and others told the Sun Sentinel.
“Some parents feel if they miss a tournament, their [child] is falling behind,” said Alex Fernandez, a former Florida Marlins pitching great who coaches the Pembroke Lakes Bulldogs 14-and-under travel ball team. “A lot of people live through their kids. That’s where the trouble comes.”
Advocates counter that travel ball instills expert skills in America’s pastime at a younger age than ever before, and offers children and their families extraordinary competitive opportunities — such as at a mid-February tournament at Pembroke Shores Park in Broward County.
The four-day event drew top-ranked teams from California, Texas and Florida — and aired to a national audience on ESPN3.
“Travel ball is as close as you can get to real Major League Baseball,” said Anthony Russo, coach of the Lantana-based South Florida Stealth. “By 12 years old, we know everyone who is [any]one.”
1st Inning: Bidding Wars
After a victory by Pembroke Pines-based Team MVP in last month’s tournament, the head coach of the travel team of 12-year-olds strolled to the diamond to embrace his pitcher. Mike Sagaro wrapped his arms around Eric Volpi, burying his face in the chest of the 6-foot-3, 185-pound boy from New York.
Volpi, a seventh-grader, towered over his teammates as they celebrated the 8-5 defeat of the Stealth, a powerhouse for which Volpi played just months before. Earlier that weekend, Volpi helped defeat yet another of his former squads, a team from California.
“Now,” one of Team MVP’s coaches announced triumphantly into a microphone at the start of the tournament, Volpi “plays for us.”
So it goes in travel baseball. Like in pro sports, today’s teammate may be tomorrow’s opponent.
Showing a flair for acquiring talent that would do a Major League owner proud, Sagaro this winter not only attracted the hard-throwing Volpi, who after the tournament flew home to Yorktown Heights, N.Y., he also secured the services of another highly regarded 12-year-old: Luke Gutos, of Moorestown, N.J., who stands 5-9 and weighs 140 pounds, and refines his swing in an $8,000 backyard batting cage.
In landing the two boys, Sagaro successfully parried a challenge from Russo, the Stealth coach. Both had played for Russo last fall, and Russo was willing to provide expenses-paid travel for tournaments in Florida and elsewhere.
Russo, a Weston-based trial attorney, joked that he was still “bitter” about losing out in the sweepstakes for the two stars. But he said he got a measure of revenge weeks later by stealing Antonio Roca, a Jacksonville-based pitcher who has played for 12 different travel ball organizations since 2009, from Team MVP’s 11-and-under roster.
John Volpi said his son, who also played for the San Diego Stars and Oakley, Calif., Stingrays at age 10 and 11, agonized for a week over whether to commit to the Broward-based Team MVP or the Palm Beach County-based Stealth. Volpi and his friend Gutos ultimately chose Team MVP for one primary reason: its No. 1 national ranking in its age group.
“I’m amazed and astounded, really,” said the older Volpi, “at what goes on in this travel ball.”
2nd Inning: ‘Cutthroat Baseball’
One of the first stars routinely flown around the country by travel baseball teams was Bryce Harper, the first overall pick in the 2011 Major League draft, and now an All-Star outfielder for the Washington Nationals. As a youngster, Harper played for travel ball teams from California, Arizona, Oklahoma and Nevada.
“I’d have someone call me a couple of times a week,” Bryce’s father, Ron Harper, told the Sun Sentinel from his home in Las Vegas. “Teams from Texas, Washing-ton, New York, you name it.”
Beginning when his son was 9, Harper said, he accepted reimbursements for flights, hotels and rental cars that allowed him and his son to travel about three weekends a month, playing in as many as 130 games a year. Major League Baseball’s regular season is 162 games.
“I would put Bryce in the best situation I possibly could,” his father said. “Heck, what 9-year-old gets to travel all over?”
Nowadays, plenty. Unlike Little League, travel ball’s sanctioning bodies permit teams — which may be funded by wealthy business people, dues payments from parents, or donations from sponsors — to import players from any locale. The result: many youth travel ball teams are run like mini-Major League franchises by coaches who call themselves “owners.”
It’s not difficult to tell when the superstar free agents arrive for the annual end-of-summer championships at Disney World organized by the United States Specialty Sports Association, a travel sports giant.
“The taxis are rolling up,” said George Gonzalez, the association’s vice president of international baseball. The young players “will come in, pitch a game, get back in the taxi and fly back to wherever [teams] recruited them from. It is serious baseball.”
One 12-and-under team from Moreno, Calif., won a major travel ball title last summer by bringing in a half-dozen boys from Florida, including a youngster from Bartow who has played for 27 USSSA teams from 19 organizations since 2010, according to the association’s website.
“People cry about it,” said the founder of the Houston Banditos Baseball Club, Ray DeLeon. “But … if you want to play at the national level, you gotta recruit. If we see a player we like, if he’s not on a better team, we try to take him. That’s what we do here. It’s cutthroat baseball.”
Filipkowski said one father told him he negotiated spending money — about $500 for a weekend — before agreeing to fly with his son to a tournament. But though rumors abound of players or family members being paid outright, parents and officials from teams interviewed for this story told the Sun Sentinel they had never engaged in it.
Athletes can lose their collegiate eligibility if they accept money beyond reimbursement for travel, lodging and other costs directly related to competitions. Yet even teams that technically abide by National Collegiate Athletic Association rules may stretch them in spirit, some say.
“Teams are outbidding people on the field and off the field with balls, bats, equipment, [sun]glasses and sneakers to go to school in,” said George Fernandez, a coach for the Miami Prospects 11-and-under team. “All the teams are doing it.”
Players also are prohibited by the NCAA from accepting “excessive” awards. That restriction, however, doesn’t apply to the grown-ups.
DeLeon, the Banditos’ owner, flashed a chunky, stone-encrusted ring before a game at the Pembroke Pines tournament. He said team funds paid for the showpiece after his 12-and-under boys captured a second straight national youth baseball championship in Memphis, Tenn., last summer.
He told a reporter it cost $24,000.
3rd Inning: The Association
A not-for-profit organization lured to Kissimmee 10 years ago from Petersburg, Va., the USSSA has been enormously profitable to those running it.
The association’s revenues come from organizing tournaments and levying registration fees on teams and players. It is now the dominant force in travel sports in the 8- to-14-year-old age bracket nationwide.
Its chief executive, Don DeDonatis, was paid $729,600 in 2011, and seven other executives, including DeDonatis’ son and son-in-law, took home more than $116,000 each, according to tax records.
Board members who served part-time received from $51,000 to $90,000 in 2011, the records show — “a very unusual practice” in the not-for-profit world where volunteer boards are customary, according to Linda Lampkin, a research director for a Washington-based company that tracks executive compensation and other salary data.
In an interview with the Sun Sentinel, DeDonatis said he works around the clock, seven days a week. He said the association has rewarded those who helped it evolve from a small-market, softball-only sanctioning body in the 1980s to the power in youth baseball, basketball, taekwondo and eight other sports that it is now.
“We’ve taken care of our board, our people who have been in this for 35 years, and who sacrificed when we didn’t have anything,” DeDonatis said. “It’s a business, at the bottom line, at the end of the day.”
Top executives at other U.S. nonprofits in sports or recreation with about the same revenue — the USSSA reported about $9 million in 2010 and 2011 — earned an average of $194,000 in 2010, according to a analysis from Lampkin’s firm, the ERI Economic Research Institute. Little League Baseball, which reported $22.7 million in revenue, paid its president/ chief executive, Stephen D. Keener, $396,603 in 2010, tax records show.
The USSSA has used its proximity to Disney World to help drive its growth. The walls of its $4 million headquarters in Kissimmee are covered with framed jerseys, autographed photos and wooden bats. Executives can stroll out to a terrace that overlooks right field in the Houston Astros spring training complex to catch a few innings of any game.
The organization has seen a 700 percent increase in the number of its baseball teams at all ages in the southern half of Florida (including the Orlando area) since 2001, with 2,747 teams at present, according to USSSA data.
Officials want much, much more. Several told the Sun Sentinel they are pursuing a multi-year television deal they hope will push the USSSA past the larger, older, more legendary — but less competition-minded — Little League.
“At our top level, we don’t really limit anything,” said Don DeDonatis III, De Donatis’ son and USSSA’s vice president of baseball operations — though the association has rules that bar last-minute player-swapping during major tournaments.
“We’re looking for the top teams, however they are formed, to all come to one place and play,” DeDonatis III said. “That’s why we are going to get this on ESPN … You put our 12 elites versus the Little League [best players], and it’s not even close.”
4th Inning: The Parents
It is parents, ultimately, who have paid for and brought about the transformation of youth baseball. At weekend tournaments, moms and dads plant fold-out chairs and coolers behind the dugouts and sit all day long, watching two to four games, staring at the field through sunglasses and occasionally erupting in shouts. Many do it cheerfully, but others bring more competitiveness, ripping into umpires or questioning coaches about why their sons didn’t play more or bat higher in the lineup.
One 12-year-old player punched an opponent at the behest of his mother, who was later banned from games, according to David Dominguez, who has coached travel ball teams in Miramar and directed USSSA tournaments in Broward County.
“I wish I could blame it on liquor,” Dominguez said. “I can’t. … A lot of times it’s just dads or moms that are overly competitive.”
According to one former coach, it’s not unheard of for families to offer cash to coaches to put their sons in the lineup.
Some South Florida parents are disconcerted by travel ball’s excesses — the expense, year-round commitment and obsession with winning — yet believe there is no alternative if their children intend to play ball in high school and beyond.
“Your whole lives revolve around this,” said Tobin Cultrera, of Boynton Beach, whose sons, 9 and 11, play for the Lake Worth-based Florida Piranaz. “There are plenty of guys out there spending $2,000 a month. I hope I’m not — I don’t want to look.”
Others seem uncertain of the wisdom of putting young children in programs where they may play nearly as many games annually as Major Leaguers.
Gino Pitelli, who has two sons on the 12-and-under Team Miami, said, “I want to see, 20 years from now, how many of these kids are still playing … Or are they going to be so burnt out that it’s not going to happen? … Are their arms going to be falling off? Will they have back problems?”
“I played a ton of baseball” as a boy, said Fernandez, the former Marlin pitching great whose 14-year-old son now plays travel ball. “It’s nothing compared to now.” 5th Inning: Injuries
One recent Monday, five youth baseball players showed up at the Pensacola office of Dr. James R. Andrews, an orthopedic surgeon known for his work with professional athletes. All had just sustained injuries, Andrews told the Sun Sentinel, and all would need Tommy John elbow surgery, a reconstructive procedure named after the former Major League pitcher.
Andrews said the No. 1 risk factor for Tommy John surgery among children is year-round baseball, which is standard for Florida travel teams. The American Sports Medicine Institute, which Andrews founded and whose mission includes preventing sports-related injuries, recommends that kids don’t even pick up a baseball for three or four months a year.
“It’s a problem, a big problem,” said Andrews, who co-wrote a book on youth sports injuries titled “Any Given Monday.” Children “can’t train constantly like mature professional athletes. Yet they are playing for coaches in travel ball who try to treat them like professional athletes.”
The USSSA does have rules for its teams designed to protect the health of pitchers. Its bylaws limit innings pitched, prohibiting kids 7 to 12, for example, from pitching more than six innings in one day or taking the mound the day after pitching more than three innings.
However, the sports medicine institute recommends imposing limits on numbers of pitches — not just on the innings pitched. The Little League, which unlike travel ball, limits its season to a few months annually, restricts its 11- and 12-year-old pitchers to no more than 85 pitches daily.
Jerry Frey, who runs a cleaning service in Clearwater, coached both of his sons through years of travel ball. Chris, the younger, emerged as a schoolboy star at age 11. But his hopes of being drafted by a Major League team ended when he fractured a bone in his pitching arm as a senior in high school. He’s trying to come back this spring, his father said, hoping to sign with the Detroit Tigers’ organization as a free agent.
James, Frey’s elder son, now 26, won a baseball scholarship to the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, but left to attend culinary school after he hurt blew out his arm and required Tommy John surgery.
Jerry Frey doesn’t blame either injury on too much baseball. Things happen, he said.
“A lot of [their peers] signed big contracts,” Frey said. “It’s amazing. You see great stories. Of course, you see real sad stories, too.”
6th Inning: The ‘Owners’
Team MVP’s Sagaro and the Stealth’s Russo epitomize a new breed of youth baseball impresario, men who possess great ambition as well as resources. Both men, who have done well in their business careers, say they don’t make a penny from their teams, but spend plenty — simply because they can. Their generosity extends far and wide, but primarily to supremely talented boys.
“While [Sagaro] provides, he also expects,” said Armando Sierra, one of Team MVP’s coaches. “We play an awful lot of games … It’s very competitive.”
Most boys selected for Sagaro’s crown jewel — the 12-and-under team that includes his son Michael — will play well over 100 games annually, traveling to tournaments around the state and nation, including Puerto Rico. They receive eight different uniforms that include jerseys with players’ names stitched on the back in two colors.
“We’ve made the organization a special place for the gifted child in South Florida to show his talent and improve his talent,” Sagaro said.
His teams have also boasted stars from Puerto Rico (Yanluis Ortiz Torres), New York (Volpi) and New Jersey (Gutos), as well as Jacksonville and Orlando.
Sagaro acknowledged he’s given jobs to the fathers of a few of his players, but said those arrangements haven’t been tied to their sons’ performance or participation on his teams. The father of one current player he lured from a team in Miami Lakes, he said, works as a courier at his Coral Gables real estate company.
Because his program has become travel ball’s equivalent to the New York Yankees, Sagaro said, he rarely needs to seek talent. Parents who want to ensure their children’s success will bring their kids to him.
“There are a lot of sick fathers who will fly [their kids] in from wherever to wear our uniform,” he said.
Russo said anybody talented enough to make one of his rosters — he runs separate teams for boys age 9, 11 and 12 — gets a free ride. He bears virtually all major costs. He estimates he spends more than $100,000 annually — about $10,000 per player — just on his 12-and-under squad, including hotel and other travel costs, salaries for a general manager and coaching staff, and the tab for a half-dozen uniforms per player.
For a major tournament, Russo said, he might drop $10,000 in a few days.
To make sure his team doesn’t end up losing at such events, he said, he will fly in a few “guest players” as “insurance” to bolster the roster.
Why do it? Sagaro and Russo, who also has a son on one of his teams, say they love baseball and children, and have gotten hooked. Both men acknowledge they are resented. “I’ve made more enemies in travel baseball than I have in 20 years as a trial attorney,” Russo said. “People who don’t have the means to do it, they get frustrated.”
Some coaches say they aren’t frustrated , but disgusted. George Fernandez, whose son once played for Team MVP and Sagaro, said he and the free-spending owner “didn’t see eye to eye.”
“I don’t do the fly-in kids,” Fernandez said. “I don’t play kids who don’t sweat for me every day … At some point, people lose perspective.”
7th Inning: The Prospect
Tommy Boyer, 11, does 100 sit-ups, sprints for 20 minutes and hits at least 70 baseballs off a tee every day. He fields 100 ground balls and retrieves 100 fly balls on alternate weekdays. He takes professional hitting and pitching lessons twice a week, executes daily speed and agility drills crafted by a professional trainer, and meets with a sports psychologist.
His nutritional program calls for virtually no junk food and four protein shakes daily to put muscle on his 4-11, 90-pound frame.
Boyer, who once played in 183 baseball games in a calendar year, has averaged about 160 since he began playing travel ball at age 6, his father said. Tommy’s father, Don, who operates a tree service business in St. Cloud, estimates he spends $2,000 a month on baseball.
Besides committing to play for Team MVP’s 11-and-under team and the Weston Black Hawks 12-and-under squad, Boyer plans to suit up for at least another eight teams in 2013. That includes a squad in Dallas that Boyer’s father said offered to fly the pair in and out of Texas on consecutive weekends.
“I hope to grow up and play in Major League Baseball, and get a scholarship,” Tommy said before a game with Team MVP in Miami. “I love to play.”
Boyer said two other teams expressed interest in Tommy’s services for this year, but both wanted him to fork over about $600 in fees and more money for a uniform. He said no, telling them: “Tommy gets everything paid for. Why should I pay you almost $1,000 when everybody else is paying for it?”
The Florida man said he constructed a 10-by-10-foot room off of his son’s bedroom to hold all the medals and trophies Tommy has won.
“It’s not about just having fun. It’s not,” Don Boyer said. “It’s about going out and doing a job … [Tommy] loves to play with the best and for the best.”
8th Inning: The Wild West
Bruce Aven, one of Team MVP’s coaches and a former Major League player for four teams, including the Marlins, said he spends more time with MVP’s kids than he does with the high schoolers he coaches at American Heritage in Plantation. State high school regulations, he noted, restrict how frequently high school athletes can take part in games and practices.
In travel baseball, there are no limits. Teams can train and play as much as they wish, which has created the most skilled generation of young players in history, some contend.
“It’s not even close to where it was five or 10 years ago,” Aven said. “Travel baseball is growing faster than any sport around.”
There is no independent watchdog keeping an eye on that growth.
The USSSA and other travel sport organizations enforce their own rules and regulations, but some say the financial stake they have in keeping a year-round slate of tournaments stocked with teams could take precedence over the welfare of the children in them. There is no sovereign oversight body comparable to the Florida High School Athletic Association, which regulates state high school sports and must answer to state legislators.
The FHSAA and NCAA, the governing body for college sports, either prohibit or strictly regulate a variety of practices common in travel ball such as free agency, player compensation/reimbursements and recruiting — the latter is termed “a gross violation of the spirit and philosophy of educational athletics” by the high school association’s rules handbook.
“Every aspect of what [travel ball owners] do would violate all the high school association rules and the NCAA rules,” said Filipkowski, who was a USSSA regional director until last year, when he left to devote more time to his law practice. “There is not any question about that. … The state directors of the [USSSA] have the power and authority to step in and regulate it, but there is no desire to do it.”
The reason, the former prosecutor said, is economics.
“That’s their business,” said Filipkowski. “You’re asking them to cut off their own legs.”
9th Inning: Big Benefits, No Guarantees
USSSA officials say they have fostered a sports and business model that benefits both the young athletes — by giving them top-notch opportunities for competition and personal growth — and the potential television partners the association hopes to attract.
Many parents, like Eric Volpi’s father, say the travel ball experience has been totally positive.
“To have the opportunity to do this at 12 years old, before he’s a teenager — it’s incredible,” John Volpi said. “He’s enjoyed every minute of it.”
More tangible benefits have flowed to others involved with the USSSA, many people told the Sun Sentinel. The association contracts out its myriad tournaments to directors who can make significant profits. Filipkowski said he took home about $100,000 annually by arranging USSSA tournaments in his designated region on Florida’s Gulf coast.
After paying for costs ranging from fields to umpires to trophies to baseballs, and sending the required fees to the association, he said, directors are free to keep the balance of revenue collected — teams usually pay between $400 and $600 per tournament to enter.
“The bottom line to all of this: There is a lot of money involved,” said Michael Machado, a travel ball coach and father from St. Petersburg whose high-school age son played last summer for the Broward-based South Florida Elite. “A lot, lot of money.”
Earnings can be even greater in Broward County where, unlike in Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties, fields are often provided for USSSA tournaments at no cost.
Being given the right to stage the tournaments, Filipkowski said, “is like a license to print money.”
There is no similar guarantee for parents paying for travel ball. For families with dreams of seeing their boy someday in Yankee pinstripes or Dodger blue, or getting a free ride to college, the odds are very, very long. About 12.5 million American kids play baseball, according to an estimate from a national sporting-goods manufacturers association. On Opening Day next month, there will room for 750 players on Major League rosters.
As for scholarships, the NCAA allows only 11.7 for baseball per Division I school, and they often get divvied up among rosters of two dozen players or more.
“About 80 percent of parents paying for this will get nothing out of it,” Machado said.
“It’s a gamble: … Is my son better than your son? I hope so.” [email protected] or 954-356-4716