With his elite travel baseball team last summer, Brad Kledzik played in showcase tournaments in New Jersey, Alabama, Florida and New York. The summer before, Texas was one of his diamond destinations. Travel ball enabled the Robinson High School pitcher to see the country and play in a highly competitive setting against other college prospects.
"With 20 college [scouts] and a couple of pro guys standing back there with [radar] guns with you pitching, it's a pretty cool adrenaline rush that goes with all that," said Kledzik, a second-team All-Met as a senior this past spring.
Kledzik believes that those appearances, and others like them, gave him the exposure he needed to land a scholarship to Wake Forest. But this summer, his travel bag sits idle. Kledzik is one of several college-bound baseball standouts in Northern Virginia who gave up the bustle and prestige -- and expense -- of travel ball to play less taxing American Legion baseball.
American Legion, in its 80th season, is the oldest teenage baseball program in the country. In recent years, however, Legion teams in Northern Virginia have hemorrhaged talent to travel teams, and most of the top young college prospects continue to slip away. But older players such as Kledzik who have made college decisions have decided they no longer need to pay $1,000 or more to play showcase baseball. Legion suits them fine, even if there are no scouts on hand and the bleachers are populated by only a few parents and girlfriends.
"I don't need to go around [now] and have the Ohio State and Tennessee coaches see me. There's no need," Kledzik said. "The money and time that goes into traveling to all those different places does take up a huge chunk of a kid's summer."
Late in the season, Kledzik left his Lorton Post 162 team to rest his arm, at the Wake Forest coaches' urging, he said. By doing so, he could go on a family vacation to British Columbia, the kind of trip his travel ball schedule would not permit in previous summers. Others are enjoying similar respites while working summer jobs they could not hold down before.
"I just wanted to stay home and relax [after] my senior year," said Springfield Post 176 infielder Kevin Moreland, a Lee graduate who will play at Christopher Newport. "With [travel teams], you were trying to win every single game. With Legion, you want to win, but it's more laid-back and you have a good time."
"Instead of $2,000 [to play], it's now $35," said Alexandria Post 129 shortstop Jared Kuhmerker, a T.C. Williams graduate and former travel team player bound for Bucknell University.
Legion loyalists and travel ball organizers have had a frosty relationship for years, with each side disparaging the other, said Virginia Baseball Club Barnstormers travel team coach Chris Warren, a former Legion coach and current coach at W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax.
Legion coaches were accustomed to having their pick of players. Now they feel as if their talent pool has been drained and Legion's prestige has been usurped. "You really have to fight for them to get the players nowadays," said Vienna Post 180 Coach Burt Crump, in his 28th season.
The travel teams can handpick players from around the region. Each Legion roster is limited to players from a certain cluster of schools whose combined enrollment in grades 10 through 12 does not exceed 5,000.
Crump and others contend that spending thousands of dollars to play baseball in the summer is unnecessary to attract college scouts; after all, players were earning scholarships long before travel teams popped up. The American Legion national Web site claims that 80 percent of college players and 55 percent of major league players are Legion products.
"We just want to have fun and play competitive baseball and play with our friends -- that's the kind of concept we offer," said Springfield Post 176 Coach Al Vaxmonsky, whose team has won six District 17 titles since 1995, with two runner-up finishes. Post 176 went 20-4 this regular season; the district tournament is taking place this week, with the championship set for 7 p.m. Saturday at Quincy Field in Arlington.
Travel team organizers, for their part, believe players have to be seen outside the immediate area to attract an array of college recruiters, and that travel baseball offers, in many cases, a better brand of ball than Legion. The money it costs to play can be seen as an investment toward earning a scholarship that might not have materialized if a player received less exposure, they say.
"In travel, you're selling yourself just as much as the team is trying to succeed," Kledzik said. "It's fun and all that, but it makes [baseball] more like a job."
Warren, who has coached both Legion and travel, said the two should be able to co-exist because they serve different types of players. One example he likes to cite is his 1999 Barnstormers team that advanced to the Connie Mack World Series in New Mexico. That team yielded three first-team all-conference selections in three different leagues in 2003 -- Jeremy Cleveland (Hayfield/North Carolina), Eddie Kim (Fairfax/James Madison) and Marc Tugwell (West Springfield/Virginia Tech). Kim was player of the year in the Colonial Athletic Association, and Tugwell was co-player of the year in the Big East.
"You look at the All-Met first team," Warren said. "I bet two-thirds of them are playing on travel teams. . . . It wouldn't shock me if it was 90 percent.
"If you're a player who aspires to play at the collegiate level and you want to get the opportunity to play in front of [college] coaches, sometimes that requires that you go to very competitive tournaments that are outside of this area. The current Legion schedule doesn't incorporate that or allow for that. I think that's [Legion's] own downfall with some of the more elite players."
Legion teams in Montgomery and Prince George's counties are not as concerned about losing talent to travel teams, coaches there say. Their teams play a busier and more ambitious schedule than teams in Northern Virginia, where Legion is viewed as a local endeavor, not a regional one.
Gaithersburg Post 295, the two-time defending Legion state champion in Maryland, played more than 50 games last year, including some travel outside the area, about double what most Northern Virginia teams play.
"With a lot of kids, if you're not traveling or going to get seen somewhere, then they don't stick around," Greenbelt Post 136 Coach Larry Prange said. "The kids want to play games. Playing a 20- or 25-game schedule sometimes is just not worth the time."
"If you offer that kind of [busy] schedule, you tend to get the [better] players to come out," 22nd-year Post 295 coach Rick Price said. "Some of these guys think they have to showcase. I think that's a large waste of money and travel time, that's for sure. On [the current team], 2003 team and 2004 team, we've got 15 guys [on each] playing college baseball. They didn't have to showcase to do it, either."
Kledzik, for one, attributes his Wake Forest scholarship to the interest he piqued playing showcase ball. He turned down offers from Nebraska, St. John's and Virginia Commonwealth, among others. But the District 17 all-star enjoyed his one and only summer of American Legion baseball.
"Honestly, nobody really knew who I was as far as college and professional scouts until I played [travel ball]," Kledzik said. "If you want to be seen, that's what you need to do. . . .
"[Legion is] the fun part of baseball -- show up, have good time, the coaches try to teach you, and you work on stuff. . . . Play baseball and have fun with it. That's what baseball's supposed to be."