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COLUMN: Travel teams fueled by big dreams

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Healthy doses of reality needed too

By John Herndon

Like most kids, I had big dreams.

My backyard was unique in that it often transformed from the place I hated to mow to Crosley-Riverfront-Sugar-Memorial-Freedom Hall-Coliseum-Bowl-Stadium-Field.

Someday within the space of an hour, that field was home to  a game-winning home run in the World Series, a 3-pointer giving the Kentucky Colonels an ABA title and a field goal propelling the Kentucky Wildcats to a Sugar Bowl championship.

I like to think it was the first multi-purpose facility in the world, but I know there were millions of other backyards just like it, serving as the home to other big league dreams.

But reality came early.

I could not hit a curve ball. For that matter, I couldn't hit a fastball or any other pitch. I stopped growing before reaching high school.

Thankfully, when I realized the dreams would not be reality, I had other interests and I was not devastated.

But the landscape of youth sports has changed dramatically over the last 40 years. Some things good, some, I am not so sure about.

Here are some observations after the research and interviews that went into the series “Have Game, Will Travel. They are one man's opinion, but formulated as someone on the outside, trying to look in objectively.

First, those that say that recreational sports, especially in the middle and high school age groups, can adequately train kids athletically for varsity high school sports and the intense competition for athletic scholarships need to be current. Someone might not like the idea of a travel team but to argue that kids won't improve that much is just being blind. The way games are played now almost requires them.

Secondly, the issues of burnout and overuse injuries are valid questions, but there are no one size fits all approaches in either realm.

Still I wonder if travel teams for elementary age groups in any sport are wise. I am certain that extra care must be taken in the younger age groups.

Thirdly, the criticisms about disrupting families and affecting church and community endeavors will never be answered to satisfy all. As a former minister, I can appreciate those criticisms, but during the course of this series, I learned of a church that is trying to use a travel team as a vehicle for outreach and have also talked with people who maintain their teams become like a family. It is a matter of personal choice.

From this corner, however, there are two major aspects of travel team sports that are major concerns.

One, no matter what the team, they are expensive. I certainly applaud the efforts of teams that are cognizant of the high cost and try to hold down expenses.

However, those that say that money will never be an object for a kid might mean well, but they are kidding themselves. It is especially true in an era with unemployment at better than 10 percent and others tightening their belts because of furloughs and trying to cut expenses because of uncertain economic times.

It might not be readily apparent, but to believe the expenses of traveling are not an issue for some people is turning a blind eye to reality.

But most of all, our culture's infatuation with college athletic scholarships and possibly turning pro has reached an unhealthy point.

Everyone thinks their child will be the next Johnny Bench, Peyton Manning or Lebron James.

Obviously, that kid is out there, but the odds against any individual child being that kid are off the charts. Think about the fact that about 300 million people live in this country and there are 750 major league baseball players.

That consideration does not even take into account how many of those players are natives of other countries. For example, six of the 25 players on the Cincinnati Reds major league active roster, as of Monday morning, are natives of another country.

It is the same in practically any sport.

When it comes to getting a college athletic scholarship, the odds are much better, but still not good. Couple that with the fact that most college grants are partial, well, you do the math.

We should never say never, nor should we try to stifle dreams. Striving for a pro career or college athletic scholarship is a worthy goal, but one that needs to be tempered with a healthy dose of reality.

Could all of this point back to a flaw in our society? There is little doubt that travel clubs are here to stay and most people will have to play those games in order to reach the top athletically. To say they do little good is absurd. But to say there are not valid concerns is just as absurd.

My duties with this publication have put me in contact with countless young people and their families who have played the games but mother nature, injuries or some other form of bad luck shattered the big dreams.

Vicious cycle? That depends on who you ask.

But it has become a cycle that is never-ending.

E-mail John Herndon at jpherndon@theandersonnews.com.