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AAU PITCHES ABILITY TO DRAW, PRODUCE TALENT

Organization welcomes those willing to pay more for more exposure, but there are growing pains.

At least twice a week, Dan Humphries drives about 80 miles from Tampa to Eustis in Central Florida so his son Chase can play baseball.

Humphries doesn't mind the constant driving for practices and the countless number of games for Chase's Amateur Athletic Union team, the Orlando Juice. For him, it is a small price to pay for his son to compete with a high-caliber club. Without it, Dan said, there wouldn't be as much big-time exposure.

"It's just a top-notch organization," Humphries said during a tournament in April. "It has some of the best players around."

Humphries isn't alone. Each year, hundreds of players flock to teams in the AAU, which has developed into one of the strongest youth baseball organizations in the country.

Originally, AAU focused on basketball and track. Baseball was added in 1985. Since then, the organization has grown and has the biggest collection of Division I baseball players in the state.

Still, AAU baseball wonders what is best - pure local talent or an emphasis on success?

Much as its youth league brethren struggle to define the sport, AAU struggles with indecision and redefinition.

There is, however, unanimity on one point: in the new world of select-team baseball, AAU is tops.

The Orlando Juice is among the best. Run by former major-leaguer Chet Lemon, who also serves as AAU's national chairman, the Juice has had 10 players drafted in the first round, including former Seminole standout Casey Kotchman (now with the Los Angeles Angels) and Milwaukee's Prince Fielder and Richie Weeks.

The fees for many AAU organizations can range from $1,000 to $2,000. In contrast, Little League costs $50 to $100, a fee that covers uniforms and insurance costs, said District 12 administrator Bob Gibson, who also sits on the Little League international board of directors.

Tearing loose from the systematic parity that has been youth baseball's foundation has not been easy. As AAU lures elite players, resentment has built.

"Little League has always been for players with a wide variety of abilities," said Little League spokesman Lance Van Auken, who played at Cross Bayou. "We have never been a program solely for elite players.

"It seems like a lot of AAU programs are garden variety travel teams started by a kid's dad. He surrounds his son with other good players, gets a lot of money from others parents and hopes one day his son makes it to the major leagues.

"That's not what we're about."

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

About the series

A four-part series on the competitiveness of youth baseball and the sometimes negative consequences.

TUESDAY: 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 top players.

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

On the web

For photos and full stories, check out preps.tampabay.com

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