Youth baseball

After slow beginnings, travel baseball has 'exploded' in region

2012-07-26T22:30:00Z 2012-07-29T01:51:11Z After slow beginnings, travel baseball has 'exploded' in regionRobby Howard The Times nwitimes.com
July 26, 2012 10:30 pm  • 

After 10 years in the Atlanta Braves organization, Dave Griffin's professional baseball career ended, and he had no idea what he was going to do with his life.

All he knew — and loved — was baseball.

So his mom told him to put an ad in the paper for baseball instruction.

"I started basically with a bucket of balls out of the back of my car," Griffin said.

Fast forward more than 20 years. Griffin now has his own baseball school and an entire travel baseball organization that he runs, including his 14-and-under Indiana Playmakers team that will play in Marietta, Ga., in a tournament televised in part on ESPN starting today.

His teams have played all across the country, but it will be the first time his Playmakers have been on TV.

It's just one more step in the growth of full-time travel baseball.

The Playmakers are one of more than 20 full-time travel teams based in Northwest Indiana. Almost all of those have popped up in the last decade.

Full-time travel teams have no "home" field, have no affiliation to any national organization and pick their own tournaments to play in each weekend. They draw higher-level players from all around the area, not just one town.

"The one thing I see now is travel ball is not half as good as what it used to be," Griffin said. "It's watered down."

THE BEGINNING OF TRAVEL BASEBALL

Griffin started the Playmakers in 1996. Back then, the idea of a youth travel baseball team was foreign to people in Northwest Indiana.

"I was the first one to do it, really," Griffin said. "There were other people who did it, but out in Northwest Indiana there was nobody."

So Griffin took his teams and drove to where he could find top-level competition in Illinois.

"We used to have to always go west, far west," Griffin said. "I'd go 45 minutes for a game on the expressway. That's the way it used to be. You played doubleheaders on the weekend against good teams."

Griffin remembers those games for the elite-level pitching and defense, resulting in 2-0 final scores.

"I used to tell people, the games at age 13 or 14 were incredible," Griffin said. "These kids would go to high school, and they'd be so far advanced compared to the normal kid. It was unbelievable."

FLOODING THE TRAVEL SCENE

It didn't take long for other people to follow Griffin's path. He said he started seeing more teams pop up in 2000, 2001 and 2002 when facilities like Ho Chunk in Lynwood were constructed.

"Other teams started catching on to that concept, and they started doing it," Griffin said. "There's a lot of good baseball players in Northwest Indiana."

Joe Fushi sees the same talent. He formed the NWI Shockers in 2009 along with Blue Jays senior adviser for baseball operations John Mallee.

"Not that town ball is bad; I just think if they see their child has some talent, they want to make sure that they're getting the best training," Fushi said. "I really think that's where you see this explosion of travel ball is just the last couple of decades, parents are hyper aware of putting their kids in growth opportunities."

With more parents trying to maximize their children's talent, more travel teams form every year.

"Before, Dave Griffin was the only game in town," Fushi said. "Now there's so many local clubs that the clubs could probably be a lot stronger, but there is a little bit of a dilution, because everyone wants to play travel ball now.

"We're baseball crazy in Northwest Indiana I think. I do believe (that the Lake Central Indians are) state champions because you have such a good pool to pull from. Everybody is very serious in this area."

For John Batistatos, the competition in Little League and organizations like Cal Ripken wasn't enough. That's why he formed the South Shore Steelheads in 2011.

"I think parents are realizing if they want their kids to get better, and they want to play competitive ball, then they have to go up to the next level really," Batistatos said. "At Little League, there's not really that competition.

"These guys are really preparing themselves for the next level."

Griffin added that he expanded his organization this year from just 13-and-under-15U teams to now having 9U-17U, as well as softball, because of increased demand.

"There's a lot of kids that want to play travel," Griffin said.

All three coaches said one of the primary goals for their teams is to put kids in position to make an impact at the high school level. But only playing travel ball doesn't guarantee that.

"There's no magic wand in this whole thing," Griffin said. "It's the kids who work the hardest who become the best."

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