When Bruno Franco, President of the Westchester Baseball Association, speaks about youth baseball, you can believe every word he says. For the past half century he has watched how the landscape and attitudes that define youth baseball have transformed a serene, national pastime into a callous, national industry. He despairs most about how youth travel teams have brought a 21st century focus on in-your-face, profits-motivated competition to what used to be a widely held enchantment with peaceful, fun days at the ballpark.
Mr. Franco is not a happy man.
In addition to his efforts on behalf of kids and baseball in Westchester, Bruno has also served as President of the New York City Baseball Federation (NYCBF) for ten years. “The Federation consists of all sandlot organizations in the city, on Long Island, in Westchester, and in Rockland County. Many travel organizations went independent because they don’t want to follow rules. They’re killing youth baseball by taking the best kids off their local teams in order to form super teams that play as much as 140 games a year all over the country.”
As a staunch supporter of sandlot baseball, Bruno also supports the Greater New York Sandlot Athletic Alliance (GNYSAA). He also knows the folly that the youth travel team industry has become. The fact is, as he sees it, the rapidly expanding, youth travel team industry does not produce superstars from those so-called super teams at any greater rate in the present day than old fashioned sandlot, fun-in-the-sun baseball ever produced “back in the day.” He cites original New York Met Ed Kranepool as a perfect example.
“Many sandlot kids became major leaguers. In the early ‘60s Eddie Kranepool made it even though he wasn’t the best player on the market. Most guys in the minors are lucky to advance because they play in front of the right scouts at the right time.” Bruno laments the fact that so many parents and coaches of young players think that their kids will receive scholarships to play in college and, eventually, signing bonuses to play on a major league team. “They’re trying to make 12 year-olds into major leaguers right out of Little League.”
He has even tougher words for the “elite” training academies and “pro” trainers that promise to turn young players into Division 1 college and major league talent. “Too many kids get hooked up with the wrong youth organizations. They’re snowballing the kids and the parents that the kids will be elite players, when they don’t have the talent to advance to those levels.”
He goes on to cite skilled young ball players who excelled at lower levels, but who never got closer to the major leagues than AAA ball. “Joe Solimine had a full ride to St. John’s, took a beating in the minors and was a good hitter. He ended up retiring from minor league baseball. He formed his own insurance company, became Town Supervisor of Pelham, New York and now runs the Pelham Mets.”
“Another kid, a 6’3” 1st baseman Phil Trombino, who played at Iona College and was approached by St. Louis, played six years in AAA and batted .300, but he couldn’t hit the long ball. He quit baseball to become a school teacher.”
Bruno’s point resonates with baseball purists who know the difference between youth development and marketing. Bruno Franco, like so many of his colleagues who make up the Greater New York Sandlot Athletic Alliance, has dedicated his life to giving kids the one activity they crave, the chance to play and to have fun doing it. It’s the one experience that kids have always wanted, over many generations.
“The old Colonial League – now the Westchester Baseball Association – has grown, and continues to grow, to have all age divisions from 8u to unlimited. Everyone gets the chance to play.” The focus on kids, just the kids, makes Bruno Franco and his leagues stand out from the fast-paced, competitive venues that youth sports has become, everywhere that wrongheaded adults try to live vicariously through the on-field exploits of their sons, daughters, grandsons and granddaughters. Bruno and his many colleagues throughout the GNYSAA seek to preserve that eternal focus on the kids. Just the kids.
Where teams and organizations that spawn the 12 year-old juggernauts dominating the for-profit youth league tournaments all across the country, Bruno Franco and the GNYSAA network have emphasized the time-honored principle that kids should be allowed to play as kids, not the sports immortals that adults fantasize their young players are preordained to become. With great exasperation, Bruno asks, rhetorically as much as publically, “How are you going to help these kids? You want to give kids the chance to play; when are you going to showcase a 12 year-old?” He might not know how much he speaks for a growing number of new coaches and parents who appreciate the importance of youth learning and development over the fleeting promise of turnstile receipts.
“Youth baseball has been hurt by the greed of managers and organizations, taking talented players away from local organizations. These so-called super teams ruin the game for the rest of the kids.” Bruno Franco might not know it, but, in the eyes of adults who truly love the game and the life lessons it enables kids to learn, he could not have spoken truer words.
“The main reasons for kids to play youth sports are learning teamwork, making new friends, learning self-discipline, learning to become men and women.” As the adults who guide kids through these formative experiences, we must “help them get their education, keep their grades up, finish college for a career.”
Need we say more?
The time-honored principles and formulas still work. Bruno’s leagues have grown to more than 150 teams, up to age 14u. That number does not include the additional 50 teams at the 15u level and higher. Bruno Franco speaks of simple, sensible goals for his programs and his kids. He wants to see “more kids participate and make parents understand that kids must get an education versus going after glory goals in sports,” which realistically lie beyond the reach of most kids.
In the final analysis, his words say the truth better than any article or sports scribe ever could, “Let the kids play for the right reasons; spend money on their education instead of wasting it on training, tournament, and travel costs that take them nowhere. Travel organizations that pay their coaches to win tournaments are doing a disservice to the kids and their families. As the adults, we have to work with the kids because it’s the right thing to do, not because we think we can make a dollar out of it.”