From private lessons to the market’s top baseball bats and elite travel teams, parents are dishing out thousands of dollars with hopes of giving their son an edge on the diamond, the potential for a college athletic scholarship or even more.
In the world of travel baseball specifically, that is where the most money exchanges hands. And it continues to grow. Like a routine fly ball, travel programs are popping up regularly all over the state with promises to gain kids exposure and make them better.
There are around 100 programs in Connecticut with teams ranging from 8-18 years old. Some programs even have as many three teams for one age bracket.
“It’s totally watered down,” said Bob Turcio, who runs the Connecticut Bombers out of Hamden and is considered a pioneer of travel baseball in the state. “I opened in 1989. There just isn’t enough competitive programs anymore. You have dads who are just starting their own programs now. They can manage, but they’re not teaching anything. It’s ruining baseball.”
With the landscape of travel ball constantly changing and expanding — even more and more Little Leaguers are passing on their town league to play strictly travel — the Register took a look at its last seven All-State high school teams to see where they are playing in the summer.
Of the 72 selections, 29 actually played American Legion for the majority of their high school career. The Bombers were the top travel program, producing nine All-State picks over the last seven years.
Team Connecticut Baseball and Baseball U both had eight, while the Grind, which is in just its second year, has produced three. That included Nick Lamberti and Ron Rossomando from this year’s team. Both will play at UConn.
The Grind is arguably one of the top up-and-programs in the state. Run by former University New Haven catcher and New York Mets draft pick Mike Moras, the Grind has a 6,000 square foot indoor facility in Orange. Moras worked with the Bombers before starting his own program. His coaching staff features the likes of Yale assistant Tucker Frawley, Los Angeles Angels draft pick Max Russell, Amity coach Sal Coppola and others.
“We go to tournaments that are highly recruited,” said Moras, whose team won the prestigious Perfect Game super regional tournament recently. “Part of it, is us doing our homework and contacting the college coaches. Let them know about our players so they can get out and see them.”
Meanwhile, Team Connecticut and Baseball U have been consistently strong. Team Connecticut has produced dozens of MLB draft picks. Baseball U has had five All-State picks over the last three years. The program recently played in a showcase at West Haven High which drew 25 college scouts, including Vanderbilt, Maryland and Seton Hall.
“Some are in this for money,” said Dennis Sweeney, a coach on the Baseball U staff who also led Law High to a state title. “We don’t go looking for money. We have passionate coaches who want to pass down their knowledge of the game. I think we have the best coaches in the state in my opinion.”
Each program pitches their perks: exposure, competing against the nation’s best, top-of-the-line coaching, state-of-the-art facilities and equipment, impressive uniforms. The list goes on. One program, Goose’s Gamers, coached by former Major League pitcher Mauro Gozzo, even has its own team bus.
But it all comes with a price, and an expensive one at that. It costs somewhere between $2,000 to $3,000 on average to play for these programs. And that usually doesn’t include travel and lodging for tournaments. Some players are traveling a great distance to play for these programs. Hunter Hamlin, from Storrs, is playing for The Grind. Baseball U has players from New York and Massachusetts on its roster.
“This is a blue-collar town,” Montville High coach Phil Orbe said. “Kids here would love to play for those top-level travel teams and get the opportunity to play in front of college coaches, but they can’t afford it. The economic divide is a concern.”
It’s a common issue and perhaps the reason American Legion baseball remains healthy. There are more than 5,400 Legion teams and over the last seven years, 40 percent of the Register All-State picks played Legion ball. That proves some of the best are still playing Legion. And Legion, which is much cheaper in comparison to travel, has adjusted to keep up with travel ball in some ways, holding showcases and all-star games for the eyes of college coaches.
“It’s still strong,” Orange Legion coach Bob Mirto said. “Kids who played travel are coming back. More and more parents are sold false dreams and the kids make the team as long as the check clears. It used to be a special, unique thing. Not anymore. For every good program, there is another that has succeeded in watering down travel baseball.”
Ed Dipersio was a scout for the Atlanta Braves and the Pittsburgh Pirates for a combined 12 years. He now runs the Connecticut High School Fall All-Stars program and his showcases are arguably some of the best in New England.
He says there are those programs that truly look out for its players, and then there are those that are in it to simply make money. Dipersio says travel ball is ideal for players up to 15 years old. But he points out Legion has its downfalls, too, such as a lack of exposure and allowing 19 year olds to play.
UConn coach Jim Penders and Southern Connecticut State coach Tim Shea say they still recruit both.
“The talent is definitely spread out a lot more now,” Penders said.
“Ten years ago, there wasn’t nearly as many programs,” Shea said. “It’s definitely changed.”
Penders said many times he is traveling outside of the region just to see an in-state player because of the location of many of the travel tournaments. He added the high school coach and program remains his first point of reference.
Shea runs and coaches a program of his own called the CT Owls. The Owls have four teams and Shea has been coaching the 15-U team for 10 years. He says the Grind, Team Connecticut, the Bombers and Baseball U are among the top programs in the state.
Chris Borelli coaches Hamden High and coached in the Bombers program for eight years at different age levels. He says longevity is the hallmark of a successful program and points to the Bombers, the program that kind of started it all. He goes on to list Team Connecticut, Baseball U, the Grind, the Xplosion and the Clubhouse, a program based out of Fairfield, as other premier programs.
Like most coaches when asked the question of which programs are the best, he doesn’t want to leave any out. And that is, perhaps, the problem: there are too many. Some teams may fold, but they will likely be replaced by another. Travel baseball isn’t going anywhere and clearly has its benefits.
So the challenge remains which programs will provide the best value?
“We’ve gotten to the point where there are so many different programs and teams, it’s not elite as it once was,” Borelli said. “It’s getting harder and harder to determine which are truly worth the investment.”
Where are they playing?
Here’s a breakdown of where the last seven Register All-state baseball teams have played their summer baseball.
American Legion 29
CT Bombers 9
Team Connecticut Baseball 8
Baseball U New England 8
The Grind 3
Bayside Yankees 2
Team Mattingly/Xplosion 2
CT Owls 1
CT Blaze 1
CT Dawgs 1
CT Dynasty 1
CT Gamers 1
CT Lightning 1
CT Overlook 1
CT Pirates 1
East Coast Grays 1
Long Island Titans 1
South Florida Bandits 1