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John W. MillerMay 19, 2022

“I need you to take him.”

The father on the phone was upset. If his 10-year-old son did not make the team at the $2,500-per-season private baseball club where I coached, the boy would lose friends and the family’s routines would be upended, he argued. They would have to drive to another suburb for ball games.

Looking for a deeper, more forceful argument, the dad added: “This team is our community.”

The privatization of American youth sports over the past 40 years is one of those revolutions of late-stage capitalism that should shock us more than it does. We have commodified the play of millions of children into a $19.2 billion business, weakening volunteer-based programs that promise affordable sports for all children. It is a trend mirrored by our schools, hospitals and military. Once-proud public institutions are being privatized, with many unintended consequences.

For millions of American families, paying private for-profit clubs—euphemistically termed “travel teams”—thousands of dollars a year to organize athletic games for their children is now an unquestioned way of life that shapes family routines, work schedules and commutes. That is why I was sympathetic to the angry dad’s argument and, in the end, took his son for the team. (Also, the boy could really hit. Alas, the father refused to make him work on defense, explaining: “I am not a fielding dad.”)

And, in general, I was sympathetic to all the players and their families during the four years I worked for that for-profit baseball company for amateur players. I will call it Club Elite. (I was there as a coach, not a journalist, so I am not naming any names.) After all, what we were doing together, learning to play baseball well, was often deliriously fun. I loved it, and so did the kids. Nobody burned out. For the most part, parents were supportive and enthusiastic, and I got along with them. And, on an individual level, their choices made sense to me. Who wouldn’t want a better baseball team for their child? This is America. But what about the children whose families cannot afford such a team?

Surveying the Field

It is impossible to ignore the bigger picture. The youth version of baseball, born out of folk games played on village greens and codified in New York City around 1850, has been fundamentally transformed by private clubs. Baseball, and its sister sport, softball, increasingly mirror the growing inequality in American life, dying in cities and booming in the suburbs. Baseball is also the major sport most likely to shrivel in our lifetimes, simply because it is not loved by a majority of American youth the way it used to be.

To be sure, baseball is still an immensely popular game for American children. In 2020,3.4 million children ages 6 to 12 played baseball, second only to basketball (4.1 million) among team sports. But the percentage of American children ages 6 to 12 who play baseballhas declined to 12.2 percent in 2020 from 16.5 percent in 2008.

Basketball, soccer and other team sports have also been privatized—but none so aggressively as baseball, the most expensive of the team sports. And baseball seems to have a higher burnout rate, as evidenced by decreased participation as children grow older: Among children ages 13 to 17, baseball participation dropped off by more than 16 percent in 2020 from the previous year to 1.8 million, while basketball slightly gained participants, growing 2.5 percent to 3.6 million.

The result: In the United States, baseball is becoming a mostly white country-club sport for upper-class families to consume, like a snorkeling vacation or a round of golf. “The way it’s going, all pro players are going to be rich, white kids from the suburbs, or [they will be] Dominican or Venezuelan,” one major league front office analyst told me. Major League Baseball has been aware of the problem for a long time. In 1989, it founded Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities, or R.B.I., which has had mixed success, and suffers from its top-down organizational structure and tends to be heavy on photo ops.

In the United States, baseball is becoming a mostly white country-club sport for upper-class families to consume.

Of course, in some communities, volunteers still teach the game for free to the next generation, and children of all backgrounds have the same opportunities. Many schools, including Catholic institutions, still field ambitious and well-organized teams. And some places even permit unsupervised play. All Americans are always free to play catch in the street or backyard with their sons and daughters.

According to Catholic social teaching, there is no question that all children should have access to affordable sports teams. “Playing sport itself has its own internal goods and intrinsic rewards,” Patrick Kelly, S.J., told me. He is a professor at the University of Detroit Mercy who has studied the theology and spirituality of sports and is the author of the book Catholic Perspectives on Sports: From Medieval to Modern Times. “If we’re concerned about the common good, we should make sure that all children who are able to participate can do so.”

Pope Francis, a soccer fan, has spoken out about the importance of sports. “There is great beauty in the harmony of certain movements and in the power of teamwork,” the pope said. “When it is like this, sport transcends the level of pure physicality and takes us into the arena of the spirit and even of mystery. And these moments are accompanied by great joy and satisfaction, which we all can share, even those not competing.”

Francis has also said that sports should be available for “the youth who live at the edges of society.” The children who “play with a rugged old deflated ball in the suburbs of some great cities or the streets of small towns” should be given the opportunity to “take up sport in circumstances of dignity, especially those who are excluded due to poverty,” he said.

America’s national pastime might be expensive and bureaucratic these days, but it was not always this way. “Baseball started as a folk game, with kids playing in parks and in the streets, with all different kinds of rules,” said Tom Gilbert, author of How Baseball Happened, a history of the game’s development in the 19th century. “But obviously that’s not happening anymore.”

If parents are investing thousands of dollars in their child’s team, they want results.

While I was growing up in Brussels in the 1980s as the son of U.S. immigrants to Belgium, baseball seemed to me to be a pillar of American culture, one of the glories of my ancestral homeland. During the summers, when we visited family in Maryland, my uncles taught me how to play. To be an American was to love baseball, I thought.

In the 1980s, Brussels had a large expatriate community and a very good Little League, with hundreds of boys and girls playing at a level high enough to send teams to the Little League World Series, including a 1984 team that featured the first girl ever to play at the tournament. Every spring, the U.S. ambassador to Belgium threw out the first pitch before a crowd of thousands. Baseball, it was clear, was a big deal.

That was, more or less, the high point of youth baseball in American culture. Since the 1980s, the increasing popularity of professional basketball and football and other youth sports like soccer and lacrosse, as well as video games and hundreds of other factors, have slowly whittled away baseball’s place of prominence.

When I moved to Pittsburgh for a job at The Wall Street Journalin 2011, I was charmed to find a city full of ball fields, then stunned at how empty they always were, or how filled with kids playing soccer or football. In 2017, after I quit the Journal, I went looking for a baseball coaching job. I had played in college, coached high school, scouted for an M.L.B. team and coached dozens of youth teams.

I searched for “Pittsburgh baseball coaching job” online and soon found a gig. It was in the suburbs, half an hour along an interstate dotted with Starbuckses, a Target and a Dick’s Sporting Goods and amid a sprawling development of homes, schools, churches and malls.

Club Elite was typical of private baseball clubs, which market their fortitude with names like Aces, Hardcore, Dawgs, Shockers, Outlaws and Rebels. At one tournament, I spotted a team called the Young Vets. My club was owned by a man who had played baseball in college. He started coaching teams in his 20s and charged families for membership.

The top two reasons children begin to play sports are having fun and being with friends.

The private baseball and softball business model relies on scaling up to as many teams as possible. If you can get 20 teams of 12 players each paying $2,500 a season, that is $600,000 in revenue. With part-time coaches making only a few thousand dollars a season—the equivalent of $10 an hour if you include driving to practices and games—club owners can easily make several hundred thousand dollars a year.

The Club Elite team included only a couple of Black players, and its overall demographics were typical of white American suburbs. The parents of my players almost all worked in one of the three pillars of the modern service economy: finance, real estate and construction, or medicine.

Another source of revenue for owners is private lessons, which cost up to $150 an hour. Parents are told these are needed year-round if their child is to play in college. That is why private clubs own or rent indoor facilities and gyms. The intense focus on individual development is another practice borrowed from professional baseball, where players now work out year-round in specialized gyms.

The intense specialization pushed by many parents is a danger to children. “Young kids need to have a sense of themselves,” said Father Kelly. “They need the freedom to discover what they enjoy, or it can turn into living out somebody else’s agenda.”

The Major Players

There is so much money in private youth sports companies that former Major League professionals are now investing in clubs instead of looking for jobs in professional baseball. In 2001, Hall of Famer Cal Ripken led the way by founding Ripken Baseball, which organizes pay-to-play tournaments all over the country.

In January, at the annual American Baseball Coaching Conference in Chicago, I interviewed Brad Clement, chief executive officer of Perfect Game, one of the most prominent private tournament organizers in the country. “What we offer is a premium service for the elite,” he told me. Mr. Clement was a school administrator and volunteer baseball coach in the 1990s. He even took a team to the Little League World Series before he joined Perfect Game. “We think that we can coexist with recreational baseball providers,” he told me. “We think you can have both.”

Whatever team you choose to play on, make sure you’re around people who really care about you.

The problem with that argument is that baseball falls apart when the best players are siphoned off. A good example is pitching—youth baseball relies heavily on the skill of its pitchers. Without strike-throwers or fielders to back them up, baseball is absurdist slow-motion theater starring one pitcher hurling pebbles to the backstop. The rise of privatized sports has drawn the best pitchers away from volunteer-based leagues, raising the likelihood that a local recreational team lacks the skills needed for a decent game, driving average players to find other sports or to quit. Or, if they can afford it, to seek out private clubs.

When former Major League catcher Charlie Greene was a boy in Miami in the 1980s, he learned baseball from his dad and other volunteer adults. He never left Miami to play. “We played one game a week, and it was the highlight of my week,” he recalled.

Mr. Greene, who is currently a minor league coordinator and coach for the Milwaukee Brewers, said what troubles him is not pushy parents, showboating players or bullying coaches. It is this simple fact: Baseball is no longer a game that is for everybody. “It’s become a white elitist sport,” Mr. Greene told me. “It’s a fading game.” In Florida, some high-level programs now cost over $10,000 a season. “I know families who’ve mortgaged their homes so their kids can play baseball,” he said.

Like Mr. Greene, many in Major League Baseball are alarmed at what is happening to youth baseball, particularly its fading appeal to African-American youth.Less than 8 percent of Major Leaguers in 2020 were African-American, down from over 20 percent in the 1970s. M.L.B. has launched a patchwork of programs in an attempt to address this disparity. Some M.L.B. teams run youth academies in urban locations, but the results thus far seem to be centered around photo ops and good community relations. Getting more children to play does not seem as important to M.L.B. as selling more tickets, and even today’s youth players are not necessarily tomorrow’s adult fans. “When the Boomers die, who’s going to watch baseball?” asked Mr. Greene.

Baseball might be fading as an American civic institution, but on the teams I coached, players and families were enthusiastic and usually joyful around the ballfield. And the truth is that I loved it, too. It is fun to teach an infield to spin double plays, pitchers to throw changeups for strikes and outfielders to dive for balls in the gap.

Pope Francis has said, “There is great beauty in the harmony of certain movements and in the power of teamwork.”

We had a good team and got better every year. Through a sophisticated scoring app designed by a company called GameChanger, I had access to advanced statistics for each of my preteen players. It was fun to analyze numbers and make my lineups every Friday, even if my players were only 10 years old.

The app, which costs around $10 a month, also generates an artificial intelligence broadcast of each game. Parents described to me the pleasure of going on the road and listening to the AI voice narrate their son’s baseball game.

I realized that the parents were not just buying baseball instruction for their children. They were buying entertainment for themselves, and they were paying for community. At a time when this sprawling country lacks shared public spaces, private sports clubs are a great way for people to share time together. But that community should not be available only for those who can pay for it.

“One of the things that youth sports provides is being part of community, of being part of something bigger than yourself,” said Father Kelly. “We need to be careful that we don’t move in an individualistic direction.”

The Cost of Commodification

One of the challenges of pay-to-play ball is that the stakes are much higher for many families than they might be with programs that cost less. If parents are investing thousands of dollars in their child’s team, they want results. Tournaments, while usually fun, could be intense. Occasionally, parents would lose it. One mother on an opposing team got so angry at me because I didn’t volunteer to correct an umpire’s call in our favor that she buzzed me in the parking lot with her pickup truck. On Monday mornings, I would receive at least one phone call from parents complaining that I hadn’t played their son in the position they desired, or batted him in the right spot in the order.

And coaches have a similar tendency to lean into that intensity. Every Monday I sent out an email wrapping up the weekend games. I realized my words were objectively over-the-top for 10-year-olds, but the coach in me couldn’t help himself. “I talked to your kids about the imperative of making adjustments,” I once wrote. “While you shouldn’t let failure overwhelm you, and make you angry and sad, you also shouldn’t accept it. Losing is not O.K. When things are not going well, you need to fight back and make adjustments.” But I also did my best to counter this intensity by naming feelings and getting boys to talk about them. “You can be angry, sad, proud, ashamed, happy, frustrated, amused,” I said once after a tough loss. “Coach,” my shortstop said. “I have so many of those.”

After each season, families visited other clubs, the way they would visit colleges, and determined where their son would play the following season. Coaches from some programs would recruit players. Sometimes, they’d even send text messages to the children themselves. Once a player and family agreed to play on a club, they would sign a “contract” committing the family to pay a big portion of the fee upfront, and the club to offer a spot on the team to the player.

According to Catholic social teaching, there is no question that all children should have access to affordable sports teams.

I hadn’t thought about how much play had been commodified until I decided to quit my coaching job. I had managed the same team, including many of the same children, for four years. I had managed well over 100 games and had run a couple of hundred practices. But in the world of private sports companies, I was only part of a community as long as I was useful. By leaving the firm, I was severing my relationship with the game, and thus with the players and families. I didn’t own a field or indoor facility. I didn’t control a website or uniform store. I still had skills to offer, but without the infrastructure, I wouldn’t get far.

The irony of these developments in youth baseball, the historian Mr. Gilbert told me, is that baseball’s origins are decidedly grass roots. The game grew out of informal 19th-century bat-and-ball games. In New York City, the growth of the city’s working classes and men’s clubs created an environment where people started forming clubs in order to play the game. Immediately, adults taught children to play and slowly came up with the idea of mimicking big league uniforms and leagues. American Legion baseball was founded in 1925. Little League Baseball was founded in the 1930s. The mythology of Little League is that a man named Carl Stotz in Williamsport, Pa., got the idea of offering real uniforms for children. Little League Baseball would be a simulation of the real thing, operated, umpired and coached by volunteers.

Perhaps Little League Baseball has been too successful. Its keystone tournament, the Little League World Series, has earned sparkling TV ratings, glamorized youth baseball and made it seem like something worth paying a lot of money for. The most famous privatized for-profit youth baseball tournaments, like Dreams Park in Cooperstown, N.Y., or Ripken in Aberdeen, Md., are largely replicas of the Little League World Series, for a price.

There might be a different way of doing things, but it requires dedicated grass-roots volunteers with a vision.

Catholic youth organizations are still around and fighting to retain children who might otherwise migrate to privatized pay-to-play sports. The popularity travel teams has resulted in “a shift in mentality” where parents adopt a “return-on-investment” mindset, said Dobie Moser, a director with Catholic Youth Organization in Cleveland. “When this happens…play becomes work.” Instead, the C.Y.O. in Cleveland, which offers athletic activities to over 20,000 kids, strives to offer a return to the basic values of youth sports. “The top two reasons children begin to play sports are having fun and being with friends,” said Mr. Moser. C.Y.O. baseball programs, in particular, have lost players to travel programs, he said. “It’s sad what’s happened with baseball, but at the end of the day, you cannot mandate the decisions of parents,” said Mr. Moser.

Nelson Cooper, 27, is another grass-roots example. When Mr. Cooper moved to Pittsburgh for work, he was shocked at the way private clubs had taken over his favorite sport. He grew up in Seattle, where he was often the only Black player on his baseball teams. In Pittsburgh, he saw the racial divide getting worse. “There are so many teams that put money first and the interests of the kids second,” he told me. “I have no issue if people are willing to pay, and have the resources, but there should be options for people who can’t afford to pay.”

Catholic youth organizations are still around and fighting to retain children who might otherwise migrate to privatized pay-to-play sports.

In 2020, Mr. Cooper founded the Pittsburgh Hardball Academy, which offers tournament play similar to what private clubs offer but eliminates the big fees. So far, Hardball Academy has three teenage teams and around 45 players. It also runs clinics in the winter that cost $15.

Mr. Cooper would like to have more players, but it can be hard to find the coaches. “The adults in these communities are the ones who stopped playing baseball in the 1980s, when [Michael] Jordan and the N.B.A. and the N.F.L. really took off,” he told me. “They didn’t play baseball as children, so they’re not going to coach.”

Another youth baseball organization in Pittsburgh, the Eastburgh Avengers, founded in 2018, offers competition against private clubs for a few hundred dollars a season. There are similar organizations in other American cities, set up by coaches in hopes of upending the control of youth baseball by private clubs.

On a recent Sunday, I checked out one of the Hardball Academy’s clinics, inside a cavernous public sports hall in the eastern part of Pittsburgh, one of the city’s poorer districts. There were over 80 players under 18, half of them children of color, running through throwing, fielding and hitting drills.

At the end of the clinic, Mr. Cooper gathered all the players in a circle and delivered a warning: “Every single one of you is a paycheck for somebody,” he said, referring to private baseball clubs who aggressively recruit in order to beef up their numbers and their income. “So whatever team you choose to play on, make sure you’re around people who really care about you.”

I talked to a man named Ollie Scott Sr. He had taken his son, Ollie Jr., to the clinic to take cuts in the batting cage and follow fielding drills. “There was a lot of baseball in downtown Pittsburgh when I was a kid,” said Mr. Scott, who is 38. “It’s all gone now, and the other travel teams charge too much. So we come here, where it’s just about the baseball.”

Correction, June 1, 10:00 a.m.: An earlier version of this story misstated the age of Pittsburgh Hardball Academy founder Nelson Cooper as 25. He is 27.

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