While Little League still operates on populist principles — any player who signs up gets to play, and the children on a team are required to live within the same area — travel baseball uses a major-league model. Teams hold annual tryouts, cut children who fail to live up to expectations and seem to be on an endless mission to scout and recruit new players, unhindered by matters of geography. One 13-year-old player I spoke with, a manifestly gifted hitter named Bryce Harper, lives in Las Vegas but regularly boards a plane to play with various travel teams who recruit his services — and sometimes pay his expenses — for big games.
An early bloomer at 6-foot-1 and 185 pounds, Bryce Harper is what might be considered youth baseball’s premier free agent. As a 12-year-old last year, he played for teams from California, Colorado, Texas, Arizona and Nevada. The arrangements are negotiated between the coaches and his dad, an ironworker named Ron Harper, who usually accompanies him. Bryce describes his experiences as uniformly “awesome,” not just for the baseball but for the opportunities they afford him to savor the world beyond Nevada. Because of baseball, he has been to Atlanta. (“I love their gumbo down there. Their gumbo is awesome.”) He’s been to Boston. (“I love their steak and lobster.”) And he’s been to New York. (“I had their steak, and it’s amazing.”)