In youth baseball (or softball), the term recreation or travel ball is used to describe the level of competitiveness. There are three distinct types of competitive teams in the USA:
- Recreation “Rec” team (beginner, casual)
- Travel Team (competitive; district/state/regional/national competitions)
- Club Team (most competitive; regional/national competitions)
Recreation league is where all kids learn to play t-ball regardless of where they ultimately end up playing in a travel or club team down the road. Older kids who continue to play in rec are more or less casual players.
Travel teams are usually run by a local league in conjunction with rec league. Most town travel teams begin at 8U (i.e. 8 year olds) and usually go up to 12U. Some towns (like mine) may offer 13-15U but most 13u+ players who are good end up playing for a club team or middle/high school teams.
Travel teams usually against other town travel teams in a given league, though they may also compete in local tournament leagues like USABL.
Club teams that I have seen usually starts around 9U or 10U.
Although not required, many towns offer both recreation and travel ball under one of these national youth league organizations:
- American Legion Baseball – Based in Indianapolis, Indiana
- Babe Ruth League – Based in Hamilton, NJ
- Cal Ripken (2) – Division within Babe Ruth; see above
- Dixie Baseball – Based in Marshall, Texas
- Little League Baseball – Williamsport, PA
- Pony Baseball – Washington, PA
- Dizzy Dean Baseball – Based in Missississpi
- USSSA Baseball – headquartered in Kissimmee, FL
- (2) Cal Ripken Baseball, a Division of the Babe Ruth League, is not affiliated with Ripken Baseball, Inc
- Ripken Baseball offers camps and tournaments (www.ripkenbaseball.com).
In this post, I will be using Cal Ripken Baseball as the example since I am most familiar with this league.
Recreation Baseball and Softball
Under Cal Ripken, the age groups are loosely broken into the following categories:
- T-Ball – For ages 4-6; learn hitting (off tee) and fielding fundamentals in a supportive team environment. The primary goal is to begin to instruct young players in the fundamentals of baseball
- Rookie – For ages 7-8; learn hitting off a pitching machine to allow for more hit-able balls at the plate and more action in the field as well as reduce the fear of getting hit
- Minor – For ages 9-10; build and refine players’ fundamental skills while beginning to understand game strategy and teamwork
- Major/60 – Play on a 46′ pitching distance and 60′ base paths
- Major/70 – Play on a 50′ pitching distance and 70′ base paths
- Major – The most experienced level of Cal Ripken Baseball, recommended for 11 and 12 year old players. Cal Ripken Baseball is played under the Official Baseball Rules, but implements some special rules as necessary for the development and welfare of this young age group. Under the Major Division, there are two formats, the Major/70 and Major/60 divisions. In both formats, games consist of six innings
You can read more about them in detail here
In my town, the above categories are broken down into smaller chunks:
- T-ball (pre kindergarten) – For ages 4-5
- T-ball (kindergarten) – For ages 5-6
- Farm A (1st grade) For ages 7-8
- Farm AA (2nd grade)– For 9 year olds
- Minors (3rd & 4th grades) – For 10 year olds
- Majors 5th (5th grades) – For 11 year olds
- Majors 6th (6th and 7th grades) – For 12-13 year olds
- Senior (7th, 8th and 9th grades) – For 13-15 year olds (3)
- Babe Ruth – 16-18 year olds (3)
(3) Plays on the 60’/90′ field
A recreation team is a team that plays in a local youth baseball league, usually run by your town’s recreation department.
Recreation teams are mostly managed by volunteer parents (especially for teams with younger kids)
Most players in recreation teams are considered to have beginner/intermediate skills.
Rec teams are usually managed and coached by volunteer parents.
Unlike other sports, there are lots of moving parts when staffing rec baseball or softball teams so in many instances, there are volunteer baseball/softball league who work with township rec department to run the league.
If there aren’t enough local rec players from the town, baseball/softball league may open up so that players from surrounding towns can join the rec league.
Travel teams (a.k.a. town travel team, tournament team or all-star team) are usually comprised of in-town players with advanced skills when compared to their peers.
Local baseball league usually has a written selection process when teams are formed after players are evaluated during a tryout (usually a two-day event depending on the number of kids trying out).
Tryout format varies but usually includes pitching, throwing, catching (as a catcher), batting and fielding drills.
Usually a tournament director from the baseball/softball league is in charge of running the event, including instituting some sort of numerical evaluation data.
It’s important to note that evaluators (i.e. parents) should not be involved with evaluating their own kids of kids’ friends!
You can have multiple teams for a given age group, especially if there are enough volunteer parents who are willing to coach and manage a team.
For example, when my son was 10 years old, there were three 10u teams: 10U-a, 10U-b and 10U-c with “A” team having the most advanced players, “B” team with intermediate players and “C” team with average players. You can loosely think of them as AAA, AA and A minor league teams.
Town travel teams also compete in league-affiliated (i.e. Cal Ripken) district and state games so they compete at a higher level.
Club teams are organized by for-profit companies. Club teams are viewed as having high baseball IQ, highly skilled players (look up Bryce Harper when he joined at club team at young age).
I have seen club teams as young as 9U (9 year old players) which I think is ridiculous but some parents really dream of their kids playing in the MLB (living vicariously anyone?)
Recreation baseball league usually runs from second week in April to second week in June (coincides with end of school year).
Travel teams usually plays during Sundays during spring season but also plays during summer months (June/July).
In our town, we also offer both rec and travel baseball during fall. However, in my town, the season is shorter (Sept/October) because it gets dark at 4:30pm as we get closer to winter solstice and can get very cold. If you live in states like Florida, Georgia, Texas, Arizona and California, you probably play baseball year round.
The term “playing down” refers to a select group of players whose birth month (usually May) that allows him or her to play with a younger group.
For travel and club teams, the cutoff month usually falls on May of every year. Simply put, if your child was born in May, you can choose to place them at their current age bracket (i.e. play with their grade-level friends) or at the lower age bracket.
For example my son was born in May 2007. That means during the spring of 2019, he had the option to play either on his 12u team (with his grade level buddies) or on a 11u team.
Because travel/club team rosters are usually set at 11 players, some parents feel that it is not right for “older” kids to play down, taking away roster spots from the younger kids.
Some parents who choose “playing down” route feel that their kid is not good enough to be on an “A” or “elite” team at their own grade level, so they choose to go with younger “A” or “elite” teams.
Playing down or not is a highly personal choice. You know your kid better than anyone else so if the option is available, you should discuss it with your child and make a decision that best suits your child.
For those parents with high expectations, you should know that something like 1% of 12 year olds continue to play baseball in high school and 1% of high school players become college baseball players.
After all, baseball/softball is a GAME and parents should focus on providing fun environment for kids so that they can grow to love the game.