Hitting the road, developing their game

Travel teams supplement traditional youth baseball leagues
By: Andrew Eggers, Special to Gold Country News Service
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For many youngsters looking to develop their baseball skills beyond what they can typically do through participation in the more traditional Little League and Pony Baseball programs, the options are continuing to increase. Local traveling teams accommodate those players, both male and female, seeking a high level of year-around competition and playing experiences that will prepare them for the high school level and beyond. Most of these programs draw athletes from all over Placer County and beyond. Greg Borgerson, director of the California Sting, based at Extra Innings in Rocklin, said the program has recently attracted around 120 kids from ages eight to 15 through local advertisements and flyers. None of the players will be turned away as teams of different skill levels will be created within each age group. “Sports have become really specialized now-a-days,” Borgerson said in a phone interview. “Unfortunately there’s not that three-sport athlete anymore. They now specialize in (specific) sports and they play them all year-around.” Under the tutelage of former San Francisco Giants’ outfielder and 14-year Major League veteran Jeffery Leonard, as well as other former pros and college and high school coaches, the Sting practice eight times a month. Roseville High’s varsity baseball coach, Hank DeMello, said his pitching staff has been improved with the help of Sting coaches who have taught players new pitches, polished pick-off moves and fine tuned their mental preparation. He mentioned that when college and professional scouts see players at showcase events, they want to know which high school and traveling team each recruit plays for. DeMello also said the majority of recruiting in softball is done at the travel ball level, while most recruiting in baseball is done during the high school season. “CIF has kind of handcuffed us as far as how often we can work the kids,” DeMello said. “During these dead periods these kids can go into these (programs) and get all the work they need.” “Our main goal is to provide kids with options when they get to high school or even college,” Borgerson said. “There have been over 100 (college) scholarships given for softball and baseball (to kids) in the Sting organization in the last 14 years.” The Hard 90 Baseball Academy is a similar organization located in Roseville. Unlike other traveling teams that recruit the top players at each position, Hard 90 offers ten quarterly workouts to those interested in order to assemble teams of different ages. Dave Rodriguez, the coach of the 10-year-old and under Pastime team at Hard 90 said that fees to participate are competitively priced at $25 per workout and around $70 per tournament. Players must attend 75 percent of the workouts to be eligible for tournament play. He noted that the financial aspect of traveling programs can be a deterrent for certain families. “We’re also very dedicated. A lot of times we’re playing on Easter or Memorial Day weekend,” Rodriguez said. “Our focus is to put the kids in position to experience success and failure because it’s all a part of the development of a baseball player.” “There are always cons because it’s a more competitive environment,” Borgerson said. “It’s not made for everyone because we are teaching them at a higher level. There are certain kids that aren’t there yet because it is a step above Little League.” Borgerson also doubles as the Vice President of Lincoln Little League, which had an increase of more than 150 participants from a year ago. He said that traveling team activities slow down during the Little League season with fewer practices and tournaments to avoid overworking the kids. “We encourage them to play Little League,” Borgerson said. “We want them to play with their friends and show what they’ve learned with all of them.” Rodriquez has coached at Yuba City High School since 1992, and has been the skipper for the freshman team for the past six years. Honkers’ varsity coach Jim Stassi said that having players from traveling teams has positively impacted the program over the last four years. The foremost belief in traveling and high school programs is that repetition and experience is vital to a ballplayers’ success and development. “You can tell the difference between kids who have played a lot of baseball versus the kids that maybe played (only) in Little League - a few games a year,” Stassi said. “I think the only way to get better at this game is by playing it.” “Some of the kids who play at that high level and travel quite a bit are ready as freshman to play varsity baseball,” DeMello said. “You can tell the difference in their baseball I.Q., what they do on the field, how they handle and carry themselves. It’s night and day.”