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UPSTARTS CHALLENGE LITTLE LEAGUE'S SUPREMACY

Parents fancying their kids as future pros shepherd them to games that bear little resemblance to Williamsport.

First in a four Part Series

Little League has always been the standard-bearer in youth baseball with more than 2-million participants from ages 5-18 in more than 100 countries.

But it is not the only game in town anymore.

In the past 25 years, several organizations have popped up around the country, all vying for the same young players.

USA Baseball, the organizing body for amateur baseball, estimates there are at least 25 organizations nationwide. In the Tampa Bay area, there are seven major organizations from which players can choose.

"When most people think of youth baseball, they immediately think of Little League," said Paul Seilor, executive director and CEO of USA Baseball. "It's the brand name that's out there. But that's not all they're playing. There are a ton of other organizations."

Many kids now are in the pressure-cooker world of travel or select baseball, all-star squads that tour the state and beyond playing what amounts to a major-league schedule.

Dylan Benedict is one of the boys of summer who now plays in the fall, winter and spring. The 14-year-old has a zest for the game and parents with the willingness to invest in his success.

Benedict, who lives in St. Petersburg, is in four leagues and competes in nearly 100 games a year.

"Dylan played football and other sports, but he really liked baseball," Dylan's father, Dave Benedict, said.

"The leagues he plays in like AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) and others have helped him develop as a baseball player. It's amazing how many options he has now, way more than I ever had growing up."

Dylan plays mostly select baseball. He doesn't play Little League.

"I've seen some Little League games, and the talent isn't as great," said Dylan, who will be a freshman at St. Petersburg High this fall. "AAU and Dizzy Dean are more advanced. We're playing better players, and that makes us better."

In contrast to Little League, travel baseball has no league at all. Instead, coaches accept invitations to dozens of tournaments in far-flung places.

Some teams, particularly in the South, have big budgets, raised from corporate sponsors or a wealthy father.

Critics of travel baseball question if its expense and all-consuming nature represents an out-of-control indulgence by parents.

They also caution that the intense physical training will cause career-ending injuries and that, emotionally, boys 9-14 are not ready for such competitive pressures. They wonder if parents are driving sons too hard, looking ahead to scholarships or major-league careers.

"If you're a kid who is 16, 17 or 18, then AAU or other select baseball leagues are good because it gives you exposure to possibly go on to college," said Bob Tewksbury, a former Saint Leo star and All-Star pitcher for the Cardinals who now is a sports psychologist for the Red Sox.

"But if you're talking about kids who are 9, 10, 11, that's too early to have them playing that much baseball. It's just ripe for burnout."

All-star squads in leagues such as AAU are no match for Little League teams. Parents of travel team boys dismiss Little League as "town ball."

Little League baseball requires local chapters draw players from a population base no bigger than 20,000. Most travel squads here draw from communities throughout the Tampa Bay area and around the state.

Little League guarantees every child a place. In travel ball, parents drive their boys hours for an invitation-only tryout, swinging at fastballs thrown by grown men, some of who played in the minor leagues. Parents of players pay $1,000 for basic team expenses, a figure that climbs with airfares, hotels and tournament fees.

"Kids in these select leagues are playing real baseball," said Northwest Youth Baseball president Charlie Gerdes, who also coaches an AAU and Dizzy Dean team. "The rules are more advanced than they are in Little League. Kids get to lead off (bases) at an earlier age. It helps them prepare for high school ball. I'm sure kids see that it's better competition, and they flock to that."

But there are drawbacks to the proliferation of leagues, including a shortage of fields and not enough players to go around.

It is being felt the most in Little League, where some local teams are having trouble finding players.

And it's creating headaches with organizations that must coexist. At Northwest Youth Baseball, parents and players must sign a form saying they will be loyal to the all-star squad they were selected for and not jump from team to team.

"It's just a different world," Gerdes said.

Bob Putnam can be reached at putnam @sptimes.com or (727) 445-4169.

PLENTY OF OPTIONS IN BAY AREA

Amateur Athletic Union Cal Ripken Dixie Baseball Dizzy Dean Baseball Little League PONY League Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI)

Founded 1983 1999 1955 1970s 1947 1952 1993

Ages 8-19 5-12 9-18 6-19 5-18 5-18 13-18

Headquarters Lake Buena Vista Aberdeen, Md. Marshall, Texas Hernando, Miss. Williamsport, Pa. Washington, Pa. New York

The skinny Established to provide an additional level of competition for players and coaches who otherwise might not have that opportunity. The league president is former major-leaguer Chet Lemon, who also coaches at Eustis High. The league is a division of Babe Ruth baseball, which has been around for more than 50 years and is best known for leagues involving 13- to 18-year-olds. The Ripken division is run by the newly inducted Hall of Fame shortstop. The organization grew from racial strife within Little League and started with eight Southern states in predominately rural areas. Dixie has been integrated since the 1960s and now has leagues in 11 states, ranging from Virginia to Texas. The league is named for the former Cardinals pitcher who was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1953. It is played in 14 states, mostly in the South. Of the more than 6,000 teams nationwide, nearly 1,500 are from Mississippi. Carl Stotz is credited with starting Little League after he built a miniature baseball diamond in Williamsport. The league still is the goliath of baseball, and its regional finals and World Series are televised nationally by ESPN. The acronym stands for Protect Our Nation's Youth, and its goal is to provide quality recreation baseball to keep kids out of trouble. The league allows players to lead off bases and has expanded basepaths to 70 feet. Started as a local program in Los Angeles in 1989 by John Young, an African-American and former major-league scout. RBI focuses primarily on disadvantaged youths and is partially funded by Major League Baseball.

Area leagues Played in all of the bay area. Played mostly in Pinellas County. Played primarily in Pasco and Hernando counties. Played mostly in Pinellas County. Played in all of the bay area. Played mostly in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. Played mostly in Pinellas County.

"Kids in these select leagues are playing real baseball. The rules are more advanced than they are in Little League. ... I'm sure kids see that it's better competition, and they flock to that."

Charlie Gerdes, Northwest Youth Baseball president and coach of teams in AAU and Dizzy Dean leagues

About the series

First in a four-part series on the competitiveness of youth baseball and sometimes negative consequences.

TODAY: Big growth. Little League used to be the league for kids. Now it has competition ... lots of it.

WEDNESDAY: Pitch count debate. Many pitchers are overextending themselves, playing in too many leagues and throwing breaking balls too early. The result, Devil Rays orthopedist Koco Eaton says, is major surgery.

THURSDAY: Big business. Parents spend thousands on team memberships, tournaments and private training in hopes of turning their kids into high-caliber players.

FRIDAY: Tale of two organizations. AAU is the most competitive league. Could its ability to lure elite players doom Little League?

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