League players should get just as close a look as travel team players


February 11, 2007|By CAL RIPKEN JR.

DEAR CAL -- My son is 14 and has always played in the Little League and Babe Ruth league systems, as opposed to travel teams. He's now in the ninth grade and trying out for his high school team. I'm frustrated that the high schools seem to use the travel teams as feeder systems. In our case, the time commitment and expense of travel teams were too much. But now I'm worried that he won't get a fair look for the high school team because he wasn't part of the "travel clique." Is this just a problem in my area, or is it broader, and what do you think about it?

Patrick Wrenn, Ashburn, Va.

DEAR PATRICK -- I believe this problem exists everywhere. When parents make decisions to place their children in travel programs, they really are projecting their athletic careers into high school. I don't believe that it's necessarily the right way to do things.

The more you play as a younger person, the more you are going to improve, but I wouldn't worry about it as part of the high school opportunity. If you have concerns about how the team is selected, I would ask the coach what criteria is ued for picking his team and communicate that you would like for your son to get a fair look based on his talent. At some point, your son might be required to practice a little more or work on his weaknesses to improve enough to make the team. That's part of growing and improving as an athlete. Certainly if you have concerns, you want to state your opinion that it's better to look at the overall talent of a kid instead of whether he or she played on a travel team.

DEAR CAL -- What is the best way to learn how to hit a breaking ball?

John Lukoski, Baltimore

DEAR JOHN -- There's really no secret to how to hit a breaking ball. This question came up in a recent coaching clinic I did with Don Mattingly. We both believe that to hit a breaking pitch you have to train your body to wait. I've found that the best way to teach kids how to wait is by changing the pace of the tosses in some of the soft-toss drills that you do. Or you can put an arc on the tosses so that it appears that you are throwing the ball almost like it is pitched in slow-pitch softball.

By mixing up the speeds of the tosses and encouraging the kids to wait and not be fooled by the pitch, you are teaching them to not shift their weight too far out in front too soon. The hardest thing for a young hitter to do is to wait on the baseball. As pitchers start to throw harder, hitters begin trying to time the pitch so that they can catch up with it. As you climb the ladder and the competition starts mixing in changeups and breaking balls, you have to get into a position where you can really see and wait for the ball, giving you the opportunity to recognize the pitch and still be quick to it.

The best drills for this start out in a soft toss fashion in which the coach can control the speed and trajectory of the ball as well as where the ball ends up in the strike zone. Slow the pace and encourage the hitters to wait. Then mix in breaking balls during batting practice, but let them know that they are coming.

I call the little curveball I throw in batting practice to my son's team the lollipop. I say, "Here comes the lollipop," and then I throw it. It really is nothing more than a slower, blooper pitch. I call it out and challenge them by telling them that no one can hit it. Then I throw it really slow so that they have to wait for it to travel all the way to home plate. For the first couple they get way out in front of the pitches, but once they have seen it a few times and learn to recognize it, they really begin to learn what it means to wait on a breaking ball.

Have a question or issue arising from your involvement in youth sports? Send it by e-mail to askcal@baltimoresun.com.

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