To Be or Not To Be (in AAU), That is the Question

The Fall baseball season is over, the World Series is finished (congrats to the New York Yankees, I guess) and now it is officially the off-season. One of the decisions I have had to recently make is whether Matt is “to be or not to be” a ballplayer in AAU (Amateur Athletic Union see next year.

First, a little background: AAU is the one of the largest and also the most competitive amateur sports organization in the country. Indeed, it is the organization behind the Junior Olympics. AAU teams are available at different age levels for virtually any mainstream team sport (more than 30) and are widely known to provide the best preparation for scholastic competition at the high school and college levels. It also goes without saying that many professional athletes in MLB, NBA and WNBA as well as Olympians had their start as AAU players. Obviously, as participants in a highly competitive athletic program, players in AAU sports are selected through a process of tryouts and invitations.

For youth athletes who have the right stuff to be successfully developed at the next level, there is nothing better than an opportunity to play in AAU sports. The tournament venues, level of play, friendships and memories are unbelievable experiences that build character and last a lifetime. However, assuming that a player prospect has the right stuff and is honored with an invitation to join a team roster, now the parents are faced with another potential barrier to participation: Cost. The costs are NOT for the faint-hearted: In my personal experience with baseball, costs range from $1,500-$2,100 just to join the team and can continue on from there to cover travel expenses, tournament fees, etc. If you are like me, you are a parent with a talented kid and you want to give them access to the best opportunities possible. But, if like me you also have modest financial means, you have to be a realist because “cost is no object” doesn’t work in my life or in this economy in general.

The other questions parents need to ask themselves is whether their player will be dedicated specifically to AAU or will also try to play in the local recreational-level league (ie. Little League, Cal Ripken, etc.) Avoiding insane schedules, conflicting team loyalties and player burnout is important, so this decision can’t be taken lightly either. AAU requires a much greater commitment to practice as well as aggressive game schedules with inevitable travel, tournaments etc.

My son Matt was ahead of the curve locally, playing AAU baseball exclusively during Spring, 2007 on a 10U team as a 9 year-old which says something for him. It was an incredible experience, but one that I wasn’t sure I could survive again either financially or emotionally. I’m glad I didn’t understand the full scope of the costs going into it, because I might have held back and missed out on more than I can say. However, after that season, Matt played Spring baseball in the local Littleton league for the next two years, initially “playing up” into Majors due to his skill level and being named an MVP on the Cal Ripken All-Star team both seasons. Staying local was easier on my wallet and schedule, but the quality of play provided a diminishing level of challenge and development over time as the trade-off.

At this point, Matt has just one year left before transitioning to the big diamond (60/90) and embarking on a whole new Babe Ruth baseball experience; one which quickly separates the recreational and less-talented players from those who will go forward and continue to play on competitive league and scholastic baseball teams. Over the last two Spring seasons I have observed other local players participating in AAU while I kept Matt on the sideline, and now I’m afraid that continuing to do so amounts to benign neglect. At this point I’m going to bite the bullet again for the sake of strategic development: AAU will give him the opportunity to play on the intermediate or “pony” (50/70) diamond as well as enable him to hone his skills with focused training and highly competitive play. I will also try to have him play in the local league to both qualify for the final Cal Ripken All-Star Tournament season and to get as many games under his belt as possible.

I recommend that other baseball parents with talented players give AAU baseball consideration. If your local league has a stronger and more competitive training program than mine does, AAU may not be necessary. Also be selective about which program you consider investing in, because ultimately it’s not the organization but rather the coaching and other players that make it a worthwhile investment and experience.

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