Travel ball teams are usually formed from Little League all-star squads. They hold competitive tryouts and do not guarantee playing time. Some coaches are parent volunteers, but a growing number are former professionals or moonlighting high school and junior college coaches.
Little League charges modest fees, typically $100 or less per season. Travel ball costs thousands of dollars a year. Many teams defray some expenses with corporate contributions. Many are set up as tax-exempt organizations to encourage donations.
Uriel Salinas, an orderly at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, said he spends about a quarter of his $40,000-plus salary on his son Uriel's travel ball expenses. The 12-year-old is an infielder for the Aztecs.
"If I looked at it closely, I'd probably think I'm spending too much money," Salinas said. "I'm trying to do as much as I can to make his dreams come true. He wants to be a pro baseball player."
The Redwings are the New York Yankees of travel ball, boasting a six-figure budget and dozens of sponsors, including the Venetian Resort Hotel Casino in Las Vegas and the Hilton Los Angeles Airport.
Owner Lupe Cruz, a labor relations consultant from Rancho Cucamonga, became aware of travel ball while trying to find better competition for his son, Erick. Three years ago, Cruz started his own team.
"I was disappointed with the level of play in Little League," he said. "My son was far better than kids two years older than him.
"Travel ball allows you to measure yourself against the most talented kids all over Southern California and the country. And it tells you what kind of future you might have in the sport."
Cruz recruited his players from Riverside, San Bernardino, Orange, San Diego and Los Angeles counties. Josh Anderson was among his prize catches.
The boy throws a 70-mph fastball, rare for a 12-year-old, and can vary the speed of his pitches, keeping hitters off balance with a change-up. He's also a dangerous hitter. During a seven-game regional tournament, he batted .611 (a .300 average is considered excellent) and pitched a one-hitter to win the championship game.
Stan Anderson, a tile contractor, had been spending as much as $10,000 a year on travel ball costs with another club. He was looking for a team that would cover some of those costs and allow Josh to play the field as well as pitch. Anderson worried that the boy was throwing too many innings.
Cruz obliged on both counts. Now, Anderson pays only for Josh's shoes, gloves and bats. The Redwings take care of nearly everything else: hotel rooms, plane tickets, two sets of uniforms and a daily expense allowance on certain trips.
Research suggests that Anderson was wise to look out for his son's arm.
Playing baseball year-round can damage developing muscles and joints and lead to injuries in adulthood, studies have found.
A 1999 survey by the nonprofit American Sports Medicine Institute tracked 476 youth pitchers for a season and found that elbow and shoulder pain increased with the number of pitches thrown in a game and in a season.
Young pitchers should be limited to 75 pitches per game, and they need periodic vacations from baseball, the institute says.
"Virtually every pitching injury that requires surgery is from overuse," said Dr. Glenn Fleisig, the institute's director of research.
Curveballs can be especially damaging because of the wrenching motion required to impart spin to the ball.
Fleisig, who has studied pitching injuries for 15 years, tells coaches that pitchers shouldn't throw a curveball "until they can shave."
But in many tournaments, 8- and 9-year-olds regularly toss curveballs. The reason: At the travel ball level, pitchers can't rely solely on fastballs; the hitters are too good.
Charlie Hedges, a parent who serves as volunteer manager of the Aztecs, encourages his son, Austin, to play basketball and lacrosse as well as baseball. He worries that too much time on the diamond could spoil the boy's love for the sport.
"The jury's still out on whether these kids are going to have burnout," Hedges said. "My son is 12 and he's already competed in 50 to 70 significant championship games. I worry when he gets to high school that he might say, 'The thrill is gone.' "