All eyes focus on Josue Valdez’s thirty-two-inch aluminum bat. The Riverbank Youth Baseball League MVP and Player of the Year completes his practice cuts and digs in to the batter’s box. He crouches slightly, cocks his hands behind his right ear and wags his bat in anticipation. Teammates on each base clap and shout his name as he stares down the pitcher 45 feet away.
The rattling of chain-link fences and the raucous Riverbank Raptors nearly drown out a man on the loudspeaker calling out “No walks!” I learn from a teammate’s father that the rule prevents other teams from walking Josue, intentionally or not. It applies to a handful of hitters in the league who used to get the Barry Bonds treatment.
The slugger’s parents, Jose Valdez and Yahaira Mota-Valdez, inch closer to the fence for a better view of their “baby,” a stocky ten-year-old who could pass for 12. Their cheers might be the loudest of all as the nervous pitcher winds and delivers a fastball.
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Josue (pronounced ho-sway) started playing baseball when he was five and says he fell in love with the game by age seven. He rattles off Yankees statistics, mimics Jeter and A-Rod’s batting stances and makes it clear to anyone who asks that his dream is to one day play in the big leagues. It’s not a pipe dream, either. Mota-Valdez says that random people watching the games often come up to her to tell her how much potential they see in her son.
“I love playing ball,” Josue says. “I love catching, hitting triples, hitting home runs. I could not imagine my life without baseball. I would be playing with my Xbox and would be bored.”
The Valdezes, like millions of families around the country, have to make considerable financial sacrifices to keep their son’s dream alive.
Josue, whom I taught 4th grade to at Harlem Success Academy last year, plays for two traveling teams, the Raptors, based in West Harlem, and the Kingsbridge Knights, based closer to his home in the Bronx. Between the two teams, he practices five nights a week and plays every weekend. Tournament entry fees alone have cost the family more than $2,000 this year, says his father, who manages a Radio Shack in Washington Heights.
The fact that Josue plays three positions – pitcher, catcher, and first base –all of which require different gloves and (in the case of catcher) special protective gear, makes him one of the costliest players to outfit. Although he does his best to find sales, Jose Valdez has spent nearly $1,000 this year on equipment, all of which Josue will inevitably outgrow.
The costs never seem to stop, says Mota-Valdez, who recently stopped working to go back to school for a bachelor’s degree in speech pathology.
“There’s all these little tapes and things Josue’s always asking me to buy for him,” she says. “The other night I spent $27 on the Internet for a thumb protector.”
Last month, the family traveled to Delaware for a weekend tournament, their first outside of New York. Mota-Valdez contemplated staying behind to reduce the cost, but she didn't want to disappoint her son. Including a $250 entry fee, gas, food and hotel accommodations, the trip’s cost exceeded $1,000. On top of that, the Valdezes and other families pooled together extra money to pay the entry fee for one of Josue’s teammates.
“I just can’t say no to my baby,” she adds, smiling.
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Once characterized by volunteer coaches, hand-me-down gloves and sponsorships by local businesses, baseball has become a driving force in the $5 billion-a-year youth sports industry. Apparel and equipment manufacturers, tournament operators, and corporate sponsors have transformed the pick-up games of old into a profit-driven enterprise.
As companies like Nike and Easton make millions, many families are being priced out of America’s pastime. Participation in youth baseball fell 24% from 2000 to 2009, according to the National Sporting Goods Association. Much of the drop has come from community-based Little Leagues, which saw their rolls drop from 2.5 million in 1996 to about 2 million last year.
The decrease is especially pronounced in inner cities, despite the efforts of youth organizations such as Harlem RBI—which stands for “Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities”—to keep the game alive. In the late 1980s, nearly 20% of major league players were African-American. Today, that number has fallen to about 8%. Earlier this year, MLB commissioner Bud Selig formed a 17-member diversity committee to investigate the falling-off.
“I don’t want to miss any opportunity here,” Selig told The New York Times in April. “We want to find out if we’re not doing well, why not, and what we need to do better.”
The rising cost of the game is likely not the only cause for the drop, but the correlation is hard to ignore, especially when considering that participation in cheaper sports like basketball and soccer has remained steady.
Despite the decline in players, profits for Little League Inc. are at record highs. The nation’s oldest and largest youth baseball organization just signed an eight-year, $60 million deal with ESPN to continue broadcasting the Little League World Series, which brought in $6 million in corporate sponsorships last year. Were he still alive, the current level of profiteering might appall Carl Stotz, who founded the organization in 1939 on strict principles of volunteerism and sportsmanship. He was ousted in 1955 after he fought to impede the interests of U.S. Rubber, the first corporate sponsor.
When it comes to making money off of kids’ dreams, however, travel ball dwarfs Little League. The one sector of the youth baseball population that has seen a surge since the 1990s is the number of kids who play more than 50 games a year – kids like Josue. Traveling teams have become popular because they offer families more games, higher quality coaches, better competition and, in many cases, year-round training. Whereas travel ball used to complement community leagues by providing stronger players an option for continued play through the late summer months, it now pulls away the most talented players and places them in expensive tournaments that are economic gold mines for the host cities.
To attract these tournaments, towns across America are constructing multi-million dollar youth sports complexes. In Westfield, Indiana, PepsiCo just agreed to a $2 million exclusive drink contract with Grand Park Sports Complex, an enormous facility with 26 diamonds and 31 fields set to open next year. City officials there claim the park will bring in more than $1 billion in economic impact in its first five years.
For travel teams, it very much matters whether you win or lose. At a game this summer, Josue’s Riverbank coach got ejected after going on a tirade about a strike call he disagreed with.
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Josue’s parents are from the Dominican Republic, where all 30 MLB teams have invested in training and recruiting players. More than 10 percent of players on current MLB rosters are from the small Caribbean island. Although the costs in dollars are lower, families there sacrifice plenty. Boys who have a real shot at making the big leagues often quit school as early as age 12 to train full time at private academies. Baseball represents their only real chance to escape poverty.
Last year, Josue’s Raptors played a Dominican team, and were trounced, 18-3.
“Those kids played with passion until the last inning,” says his mother. “The children in the Dominican Republic are born in this sport. They play for necessity and for love of baseball, not just to be ‘playing a sport.’”
While he doesn’t play out of the same necessity, Josue also takes his training very seriously.
“I play more than fifteen hours a week in the summer and six or seven hours per week in the fall,” he says. During the winter months, he maintains his skills by practicing at Riverbank Park’s indoor complex.
Josue is an exceptional hitter. Unlike the weak grounders and soft flies hit by his peers, he smashes line drives nearly every time up. After seeing him bat, it’s hard to blame other coaches for wanting to walk him, even with loaded bases.
In addition to his talent, Josue’s discipline sets him apart from other players in his league. He focuses on details that many young players overlook. Before games, he cycles through a patterned regimen of stretches and running drills. When he plays catcher, he uses his sturdy frame to block low pitches in the dirt. In a recent game at first base, he jumped to nab an errant throw and stretched to get his toe back on the bag just before the runner crossed.
“I’m one of the best,” Josue admits, modestly.
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In 4th grade last year, Josue carried himself with a level of confidence rare for kids his age. Aided by his strong physique and playful demeanor, he always attracted a crowd at the lunch table and in the recess yard. He relished his role as the center of attention, but when a classmate got a compliment or aced a test, Josue was the first to offer a high five.
On Mondays he would come to school reliving all of the home runs he’d hit over the weekend, but I also marveled at how he could discuss the nuances of baseball, like the merits of a toe tap as a timing mechanism for hitters or the most efficient motion for catchers to fire a ball to second base.
He led our class cheer and couldn’t be embarrassed, even the time his pants split down the middle during a lesson. He simply tied a sweater around the front of his waist to cover the tear and then rejoined the class. My co-teacher and I called on Josue when visitors came into our room because we knew he’d give an impressive answer. During independent work, his penmanship resembled a computer font. On the Common Core state tests, which about three-fourths of his citywide peers failed, Josue passed English Language Arts and breezed through math and science with a perfect four out of four on each. He plans to go to college—unless a Major League team drafts him first. He says he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to make his family financially secure.
“I could then go back to college because I’d be able to afford it,” he adds.
Despite his drive, Josue’s chance of ever playing in the majors remains slim––though not unrealistic. Luckily, the Valdezes don’t consider their costs an investment in Josue’s chance of becoming the next Albert Pujols. Watching him play the game he loves seems to be reward enough.
“It is an indescribable emotion,” says Mota-Valdez. “I have a sense of happiness and pride to see my first-born son doing what he loves and doing it right.”
“I can’t wait to come out of work every day to pick up Josue and take him to practice,” adds Jose Valdez.
Josue plans to keep playing as much baseball as possible, and his parents say they will continue to support him 100 percent. He can play for the Kingsbridge Knights, the more competitive of his two teams, until he’s 17. He is already scoping out area high schools with strong baseball programs. Eventually, scouting camps, talent showcases and private lessons might also be in the forecast.
But none of that is in his head as he takes his stance in the batter’s box on this humid day at Riverbank Park. The pitch comes in belt high, right down the middle. With a mighty cut, Josue sends the ball soaring over the left fielder’s head into an endless sea of green turf. By the time the adult-length fence stops the ball, Josue is flying around second base. The futile relay throw trickles into the infield after he has already crossed home plate into the arms of a mob of Raptors.
Amid wild cheers, the little slugger flashes a grin for his parents, who consider moments like these to be priceless.
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Taylor McGraw is a Teach for America corps member in his second year of teaching at Success Academy in Harlem. He has previously written for USA Today, USA Today Sports Weekly and NFL.com.
Emon Hassan, Narratively's Director of Video & Multimedia, is a New York-based filmmaker and photographer. He is also a contributor to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook & Google+.