For the longest time, the belief was if you could play, they would find you.
Pro scouts find college kids from Tuscaloosa to Kalamazoo. Colleges could uncover diamonds in podunk towns and sight future stars at small private schools.
But now the needles are looking to stand out among the haystacks, and hoping to be seen is often seen as a dated hope.
Simply put, for an ever-growing percentage of high school sports standouts who want to be offered a college scholarship, talent has to travel.
But at what price? Whether that means joining the AAU basketball circuit, traveling with select teams for baseball and softball or participating in any of the hundreds of football camps spread across the nation during the summer months, families foot the bill of league and tournament fees as well as travel costs such as gas, food and lodging — all in the search for that rare college scholarship offer.
A NEW BALLGAME
Ben Timblin’s first travel baseball experience was with Scenic City Team Nike. It sounds pretty big time, right?
“We were 8, and they don’t exist anymore,” said Timblin, who will be a junior at Signal Mountain this year and was a Best of Preps selection this spring.
For Timblin, a three-sport athlete growing up who has been a multisport starter with the Eagles for multiple years, baseball has always been his comfort zone.
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A next-level prospect as an outfielder with all the tools, Timblin also has pitched for almost every travel team on which he has played. It’s just another part of the opportunity to be seen on the bigger stages, and it’s one that he has embraced.
The transition between playing for your high school and playing on elite travel teams such as the Chattanooga-based eXposure organization is not lost on Timblin, who has already appeared in close to 1,000 games and traveled countless miles to play the game he loves.
“High school ball is a whole different game because you are trying to win games with the guys you have known and loved your whole life,” said Timblin, who hit second this spring for Signal Mountain, which lost in the region semifinals to finish just two wins from reaching the TSSAA state tournament. “Then when you get to travel ball, it does feel more like a business, because when you cross that line and you get there to play and compete, you know (scouts) are always watching.”
Even with the added weight, the joy of the game keeps Timblin grounded in a place that supersedes pressure and platforms.
“I don’t think about it like that,” said Timblin, who has already been approached by scouts during travel team events. “I enjoy it so much, it’s not a job; in a sense, yes, but because I love the game so much, no.”
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The eXposure, a travel club founded by former Walker Valley High School and Mississippi State baseball standout Brandon Turner, has evolved into one of the region’s top travel baseball operations.
According to the program’s website, since being founded less than a decade ago, two travel teams have become 30 and more than 480 program alumni have played college baseball in that time frame.
It’s a serious commitment in terms of time and money, but Turner knew early on the path to the next level is powered with players going against the best competition they can find.
“It’s night and day,” Turner said of the difference between high school and travel competition. “To think what travel ball was even six years ago is ridiculous — I love it — but I also think high school baseball provides such a different and just as valuable opportunity as travel baseball.”
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Turner was a big-time recruit and found a big-time program through the more traditional routes. He played in the summer, but even for the 2005 Walker Valley graduate who played for his dad in high school and landed a scholarship to a program that is a regular at the College World Series, the current trampoline that is travel baseball offers a springboard toward scholarships.
“High school baseball is great, and I loved playing for my school and I have a ton of respect for the programs and coaches in our area,” Turner said. “Travel baseball just provides a different platform for players to be seen in environments with other great players from around the country.”
“And players need to understand that they need to be seen playing against great competition in the summer because high school baseball spring seasons coincide with college seasons, so it’s tougher for schools to get out and recruit.”
WHY NOT BOTH?
A summer filled with trips and tournaments is nothing new for Timblin or Turner or countless others who know bat bags and suitcases are synonymous.
The eXposure is bounding around the East Coast almost on a weekly basis. Like all things, the perceived surreal seems second nature for those who deal with it regularly.
Travel baseball — Timblin has seen as many parks in the U.S. as a nomadic ranger — is here to stay and only growing. And spreading.
The capital of the travel baseball universe is in Marietta, Georgia, the home of East Cobb Baseball. The first East Cobb team started after a collection of 12-year-olds won the Little League World Series in 1983, then stayed together and played in whatever tournaments they could find in the years to follow.
That program went from a collection of neighborhood kids named Joe Hutchinson, Mike Langley, Adam Olmstead and Marc Pisciotta, among others, to a star factory that has hosted a slew of future MLB stars from all over the country, including Jason Heyward, Dansby Swanson and Zach Wheeler.
Almost 40 years after East Cobb Baseball took root, the travel game has changed the format. Is it for the better?
Kids play hundreds of baseball games a year, leading some to specialize by no longer participating in other sports — which raises concerns including overuse injuries and mental and physical burnout. Either way, there is no doubting the change.
“I enjoy both,” Timblin said of high school and travel ball, adding that they’re “both so different, as a game and an aspect. I actually feel more pressure in high school ball, but I love the game so much I can’t think of doing it any other way.”
That’s the kind of passion that works and home and on the road.
Contact Jay Greeson at [email protected].