Legends On Deck

Why Play Fall Baseball? A Breakdown for Young Ballplayers

When you think about fall sports, football is the first thing that comes to mind.  As sports fan, many of us are amped up for the kickoff of college football and the NFL.  On the high school level, it’s football, golf and cross country are fall sports.  Up north, soccer is generally played in the fall, but down here in Florida, it’s a winter sport.  Nevertheless, baseball is a spring sport on the high school calendar.  But, for serious players, the fall baseball season is seen as a time to develop and grow.

Seasonal, Unstructured Sports

When I was a kid (I’m 38), most of us who loved playing sports would pick up each game by the season.  Baseball was largely a spring and summer sport; especially given the cold, long Michigan winters.  Football began in the late summer and ran through the fall.  In the winter, some kids played hockey, but many of us went indoors for basketball.  Sports often reflected the collegiate and professional seasons we would watch on TV.

We would reenact batting stances all summer long, after catching the highlights on SportsCenter that morning.  We’d throw touchdowns in the backyard after we saw a game winning play on Saturday or Sunday afternoon.  In the Detroit area, we’d break out the roller blades and play hockey in the streets during the Stanley Cup Playoffs.  And we’d be shooting hoops in our driveways during March Madness or a Pistons playoff run.  Yes, I played plenty of organized sports growing up, but often times it was the unorganized, backyard or sandlot games that made lasting memories.  We talked players, statistics and the history of the sports we loved.

Today, the world is not the same place in so many ways.  Too many kids are indoors attached to their tablets, video game counsels and smartphones.  Unstructured play, particularly as it pertains to sports, is much less common.  Not to mention, there are greater concerns about child safety matters, making parents more hesitant to allow their children to roam free in the neighborhood.  I don’t consider myself particularly old, but those were simpler times.  Today’s kids don’t engage much in unorganized sports and even organized leagues has seen a decline in participation.  Yet, those who do play are often quite serious about it.

Baseball 24/7

As I have observed, early specialization in a single sport has become much more common in recent years.  I’ve seen this with kids who play soccer and baseball, and other sports as well.  Competitive travel clubs are available at younger ages than every before.  Hall of Fame Pitcher John Smoltz voiced some of these concerns during his Hall of Fame induction speech back in 2009.  In short, Smoltz talks about the way he grew up (in Michigan), playing multiple sports for most of his childhood.  He warns that focusing on baseball year round, at a young age, can cause muscle fatigue and may not allow players to reach their full athletic potential.

This trend begs a number of important questions.  Does early specialization in baseball yield a better result for developing young players than for those who are multi-sport athletes?  What benefits are there for young people who play more than one sport?  And, what is a good age, if any, for specialization?

Other Paths Forward

Coaches and former players may all have their own theories about what the proper balance is for athletes.  In a recent Legends on Deck podcast with Coach Eric Lassiter (Windermere HS / Power Baseball / Diamond Allegiance), he highlighted the importance of summer and fall seasons for college recruitment.  Power Baseball and other similar travel baseball programs are designed to get ambitious ballplayers to showcases and tournaments in order to gain exposure with recruiters and scouts.

In a recent discussion with Korey Reed, AAU Florida Baseball/Softball Director, he stressed the importance of overall athleticism for young kids, but also an increase in specialization with age.  Here’s how he put it:

“I personally played organized baseball, football, basketball and track & field growing up. I have no doubt that competing in multiple sports gave me an advantage on the diamond.  However, I realized once I was playing baseball at the college level, I lacked some of the technique and skill that comes from repetition.  Had I decided to focus more heavily on baseball earlier, I might have had more sound fundamentals, even if I lagged on some of the foot speed or overall athleticism I acquired from other sports.” 

Reed’s take is that there seems to be a trade off taking place.  Playing multiple sports may add to a player’s speed and strength.  However, baseball is also a game of repetition.  One that requires a lot of time working on fundamentals in the field and in the batting cage.  Reed went on to say:

“As a baseball professional, I say play multiple sports until high school.  Then, focus on the game you love most (baseball), plus one more sport for conditioning and overall athleticism.” 

This approach seems to strike a middle ground.  When kids are young, they’re often look to get involved in organized baseball (and sports overall) for recreational purposes.  It’s a great way to get outside, get some exercise, learn the game and how to work as a team.  Baseball is supposed to be fun after all and it helps create lasting memories and lifelong fans.

To Play or Not to Play?

One of the advantages of living in Florida is the weather permits baseball to be played year round.  In fact, the heat of summer and rainy afternoons are probably more prohibitive to baseball than the winter months.  This is also true in places like Arizona, Georgia, Texas and Southern California who are also producing large numbers of collegiate and professional baseball players like Florida.  Not to mention, the Caribbean and Latin American countries.

The questions that this article hopes to address is the decision making process of parents and young ballplayers in regards to how to prioritize baseball.  I have recently dealt with this issue as a parent.  My son has played soccer in the fall, baseball in the spring and martial arts year round for the past two years.  He loves sports and has a ton of energy.  In fact, he keeps talking about getting basketball and football in the rotation (there’s not enough days in the week for him).

After his baseball season ended in late May, he immediately asked me when was the next season he could play.  He is determined to keep improving on his skills and told me that he felt by not playing last fall, he had to relearn some of the fundamentals early in the spring season (yes, this came directly from a kid who will just turn 7 this month).  He caught up quickly and had a great spring season. My son’s view is, as a kid who really loves learning the game, that more repetition will make him a better player.   And this is likely true.  So, we signed up for fall baseball, which began this past week.  He is playing soccer this fall as well.

A Place for Fall Ball

Everyone’s priorities may be slightly different.  Kids who gravitate to baseball may choose to focus more intensely on it at different ages.  Like most things in life, it’s probably not one size fits all.  Fall baseball typically offers a lighter schedule, often times half the amount of games.  This also allows for enough time to play another fall sport.

Fall ball grants young players an opportunity to develop their fundamentals.  At the high school level, it might mean it’s a chance to be discovered.  September and October are also the most exciting months on the MLB schedule, with pennant races and the postseason.  Kids who love the game can go out and play the game as their big league heroes chase a World Series title.

Whatever your opinion lands on the fall baseball question, thousands of young ballplayers will work to sharpen their skills from now until Thanksgiving.  Enjoy the season!

 

(Photo is of Beaver Field at Jim and Bettie Smith Stadium on the campus of Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina.  The pic comes from an article on MLB.com in 2019.  It perfectly captures fall baseball.)

Brian Koss
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