Youth baseball gone wild: ‘You’re selling your son’s soul for a six-dollar trophy’ – Fort Worth Star Telegram
Lale Esquivel, the controversial owner and coach of the Texas Bombers, is as hard-charging in his pursuit of youth baseball players as he is unapologetic about his method for building powerhouse teams.
When he found three players with exceptional skills, Esquivel wanted them, regardless of the fact that they lived on opposite coasts, some 1,400 miles from the Bombers’ home base in Haltom City.
Those coveted recruits, two of whom are 10 years old and the other is 9, are now very young frequent fliers.
“Here’s the way I look at it,” Esquivel said. “I want my sons to compete and play with the biggest players in the country, so there’s no boundary that is too far for me. We’re not talking about going down to Fort Worth and watching rec ball. We’re not talking about going down to ULL [University Little League]. I have the best players in the country, not to mention the Western Hemisphere.”
Esquivel saw the trio on their social media pages, a platform parents are using to share, if not promote, their kids’ baseball prowess.
Joey Erace, from Mullica Hill, N.J., has 20,500 Instagram followers. Jordan Rodriguez’s batting compilation video from his home near Los Angeles went viral with 1.6 million Facebook views. Bryce Morrison’s baseball drills videos are becoming the stuff of legend far removed from his hometown of Compton, Calif.
Once Esquivel spots these elementary school superstars, he pitches the parents on the benefits of playing for him halfway across the country.
Henry Rodriguez, Jordan’s father, initially didn’t bite.
“Honestly, I brushed him off like twice, like who is this crazy guy trying to fly us out?” Henry Rodriguez said. “Back then [Jordan] was 9. I did a little background on [Esquivel], saw he had older kids winning national championships and said, ‘Wow this guy’s for real.’ I saw he went to the University of Miami. So we gave it a shot and started going out once or twice a month, and it started there.”
Welcome to the wild, wild world of select baseball, where, with the Bombers at least, cross-country plane trips and all-expenses-paid travel are as common as a postgame pizza party.
The Star-Telegram began exploring the extravagant side of select baseball last fall and found parents who spend thousands of dollars on travel, training and equipment, and coaches who execute win-at-all-costs strategies to find and secure the best players — even as young as age 9.
The Dallas-Fort Worth area has an estimated 75 select organizations with more than 1,000 teams, fielding players from age 6 through high school. Few go at it as hard — and as cutthroat — as Esquivel, who not only recruits players from other states but makes the practically-unheard-of offer to pay travel expenses for the player — and a parent — in pursuit of championship bling in Texas and beyond.
Like select soccer and AAU basketball, select baseball is for players whose talent and desire outshine their peers in more traditional youth leagues. It can be serious business on and off the field, with hefty dues and fees for uniforms, equipment, facility rentals, salaries for coaches who conduct team practices and indoor workouts squeezed around individual training sessions and weekend-long tournaments played at sprawling complexes.
The dream for many players, and their parents, is a college scholarship, or really beating the long odds and getting drafted by Major League Baseball.
But at what age — and at what cost — does serious cross over to extreme?
The typical select organization doesn’t boast a budget large enough to cover player travel, a potential competitive disadvantage. Rivals argue that Esquivel is obsessed with winning and not improving players, and that he runs his young teams like farm squads, promoting and demoting players depending on which long-distance Bombers are coming in for the weekend.
“People legitimately hate me because we win,” Esquivel said. “People hate the Cowboys. People hate the Yankees. If we didn’t win, do you think people would hate us? Hell no. We’re everybody’s World Series.”
Mental health professionals point to potential issues of early burnout, tension provoked by fears of disappointing a parent and the psychological stress that pressure-cooker situations can place on young athletes who might be advanced athletically, but still possess a 10-year-old’s cognitive reasoning.
“The professionalization of youth sports is detrimental to young athletes. First off, they’re not professional athletes, they haven’t been playing for 15 years,” said psychologist Andrea Corn, a sports psychology consultant and co-author of “Raising Your Game: Over 100 Accomplished Athletes Help You Guide Your Girls and Boys Through Sports.”
“What is the benefit of doing this at 9 or 10 years old? ‘I only accept you if you excel and win,’ is a terrible message.”
Easing the burden
Esquivel, 39, a former Arlington Lamar High School star and cleanup hitter for the 1999 NCAA champion Miami Hurricanes, sharpened his focus as a hyper-aggressive headhunter before his two sons came of playing age.
He describes his boys, 9-year-old Luke and 10-year-old Lale V, as being among the best in the country at their age, as are their Bombers teammates, including Joey, Jordan and Bryce.
Six of the 20 players on Esquivel’s 10-and-under Major Bombers don’t live in Texas. There’s one more from California, one from Florida and one from Mexico. Combined with a group of high-achieving Dallas-Fort Worth area youngsters, the Bombers are ranked No. 2 in the country, 81-5, Esquivel said, since January. They’re a favorite to win next month’s nine-day Wilson DeMarini Elite World Series at Walt Disney World in Florida.
Joey’s father, Joe Erace, an owner of hair salons and spas, said he’s spent $30,000 on his son’s baseball travels plus $1,200 a month for four professional trainers to work with Joey five days a week. It’s no free ride. But for players whose parents are more concerned with making the monthly mortgage payment, it can be. This season, Esquivel said, he paid all or most of the travel costs for four of his six out-of-state players.
The Bombers, as well as some other organizations, also waive or significantly discount fees and dues for players on their top age-group teams while charging normal rates for players on lower-rung teams. A season typically costs between $1,500 and $2,000.
It’s an effective tactic for attracting star players from other area teams, and for gaining the attention of parents of blooming talent anywhere.
Steve Morrison, Bryce’s dad, said he spent $6,000 on travel for his son’s first entry into Texas select baseball with the Dallas Banditos.
“I bit the bullet on that,” Morrison, a teacher and coach, said. Then Esquivel came along and eased the financial burden, which, in turn, added an emotional one.
“I know the kid has to go out there and perform,” Morrison said. “For me, personally, I just wouldn’t want to waste their money with him having a bad trip.”
Other teams are proving that staying local can be just as effective.
The 10-and-under Major Alamo Drillers out of San Antonio, built mostly with players who live within a 40-mile radius of the city, have held off the Bombers for the No. 1 national ranking.
Two players, coach Marco Cunningham said, live outside the San Antonio-Austin area — the son of his former college roommate and now assistant coach, and his son’s best friend. They live in Houston.
“That’s what actually makes our team so special,” Cunningham said. “We are the No. 1 10-and-under team in the country, and it’s all homegrown.”
‘Special, special kids’
Esquivel’s father, Lale Esquivel III, a former Mexican League ballplayer, founded the Bombers organization in 1990, and serves as general manager. The elder Esquivel also owns the business Action Logistics in Grand Prairie, and his son says his own position with the company affords him the means to spend above and beyond on his Bombers.
The Bombers certainly seem to be Job One.
“I search profiles, I get on the phone, internationally. I got kids on a 15-year-old team from Panama, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic,” Esquivel said. “I got this 9-year-old kid, I haven’t used him yet, from the Dominican Republic. I’ve seen video, talked to the father and we’re trying to see if he can get here one weekend.
“We’re talking about special, special kids. That’s what we get, that’s what I want,” Esquivel continued. “You can look at me and say I’m cheating or it’s not right; I hear it every weekend. We play to win the games, period. These kids, before every weekend we play, I look at them in their faces and say, ‘What do you want to do?’ Every one of them tells me they want to be in the big leagues.
“Will they all make it? No. Some might not even make college. But I’ve cut kids that say they want to make their high school team. I want them to have bigger dreams. We’re shooting for the stars.”
Esquivel himself fell short. Eighth on the Hurricanes’ all-time home run list, he had a short stint in the minor leagues after suffering a torn rotator cuff that prevents him from throwing to this day, he said, and later, an admission of steroid use.
These days, he’s among the most well-known movers and shakers on the youth baseball scene, if he’s not the most popular.
The USSSA, the body that runs select baseball tournaments nationally, suspended Esquivel for one year in 2014 — an offense he claims was out of his hands — and placed him on lifetime probation. Esquivel said an independent team paid him for the right to use the Bombers name — a frequent occurrence, he said — but failed to properly pay tournament fees.
Recruiting nationally and expense-paid travel, however, are fair game. No rules exist that prohibit either.
Two USSSA officials, Texas state director Frank Griffin and executive vice president Joey Odom, did not return multiple email and voice messages dating back to last fall.
No foul, no harm?
Rival coaches often express concern that players flown in on the organization’s dime could risk future NCAA eligibility entanglements. However, an NCAA spokesperson said that is not the case.
Not all youngsters who dive into select baseball will play on their high school varsity team, let alone college ball.
Of the roughly 489,000 who do play high school baseball annually, 7.1 percent will go on to play some level of NCAA baseball — but only 2.1 percent at a Division I program. About 1 in every 170 high school baseball players will get drafted by a Major League Baseball team.
Such long odds suggest to some parents the earlier they begin specializing in one sport the better. Colleyville Heritage High coach Alan McDougal, who has several high-caliber players on his team, including star pitcher and 2017 fifth-round draft pick Alex Scherff, disagrees.
“There is some notion out there that has people convinced that if you don’t [play select baseball] you will get left behind. I don’t buy it,” said McDougal, whose Class 5A Panthers fell in three games to rival Grapevine in a state regional final earlier this month.
McDougal said he has seen young kids at his camps who look like superstars, but then their development tapers off. And then there’s those who start slower and blossom into stars.
Esquivel contends he’s providing opportunity and exposure in a baseball world in which colleges are increasingly recruiting players as young as 13. His own 10-year-old, Esquivel said, was recently contacted by Wichita State.
Whether Esquivel is truly increasing the odds for his young players is up for debate. So, too, are his tactics of national — and international — recruiting and footing the travel bill.
“To me, it’s not normal practice,” said Dallas Banditos general manager Albert Najera, “and, to me, it’s outrageous.”
Linty Ingram, a 12th-round pick in the 1998 major-league draft and owner of Centerfield Baseball Academy in Plano, said he prefers the continuity of having his whole team together for practices where, he said, skills are truly honed. He won’t pay for a few of his high school-age players who live in Oklahoma and Arkansas, but he does defend Esquivel’s right to do what he wants.
“I know a lot of people bash them, but they’ve got the money somehow to do it,” Ingram said. “It’s not illegal, so how can you really knock him?”
Brandon Emerson of Trophy Club, the father of a talented 9-year-old, grappled with the pros and cons of his son playing for Esquivel. He said playing with other advanced players made his son better. Yet, he ultimately chose to walk away to find “an environment more focused on development and less focused on winning.”
“With Lale, if you stay with him, everything is free,” Emerson said. “The parents are the problem. You’re selling your son’s soul for a six-dollar trophy every weekend.”
Fathers of the top-notch Texas players say their kids are laser focused on baseball.
Erace said his son Joey devours the sport and pushes himself to play and train, not the other way around. Erace said if his son desired to be a concert pianist, for example, he’d do all he could to help him succeed, just as he believes he’s doing with baseball.
Morrison, Bryce’s dad, said his son needs to learn about all aspects of a life in baseball.
“I want him to experience travel,” Morrison said. “If this is going to be his endeavor in life, he has to get used to playing in different locations and in front of bigger crowds.”
It’s a mindset some find troubling, if not handled with care.
“There are a couple of serious questions you have to raise about this practice, and one is just the pressure on this kid and how it pulls them out of everyday social society for young kids. That’s worrisome,” said Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley and author of “The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence.”
“The two most important things kids have to do, is do well in school and get along with their friends,” Keltner said. “This kind of extreme sports is counterproductive to that.”
Matt Lisle, a professional hitting coach in California who works exclusively with major-leaguers and spent 17 years training youth and college players, shared Jordan Rodriguez’s batting-cage video that went viral.
Lisle suspects that with more parents using social media as a promotional tool, more select organizations will start to recruit younger players outside their natural geographical area, and he’s skeptical that’s a good thing.
“If you’re buying into the hype, parents start thinking, ‘My kid is the best in the nation,’” Lisle said. “The expectations put on the child, I’m OK with it, but if I’m the coach of that team or parents of the kid, I’m having serious conversations about expectations, and if he doesn’t meet those expectations, how to deal with it.”
Bombers not alone
The Bombers aren’t the only organization with deep pockets and a willingness to spend.
Spitfire, a Tarrant County organization formed in 2015 by Kathleen Murphy and her husband, Brad Boyd, is known for waiving fees and paying travel expenses to tournaments.
“We have to help with hotels — we would get a big house and put like five families in it, that’s what we did for Florida [at the World Series in Orlando last July] and it’s still very expensive to even do that,” Murphy said in an interview last October. “We require everybody to fund raise, and that helps, but it still doesn’t cover everything. It’s still very expensive to do what we’re trying to do, but it’s our give-back.”
When Murphy and Boyd jumped into the select baseball industry with no prior experience, they hired Esquivel away from the Bombers, enticing him with an above-market $65,000 salary, according to Esquivel’s Spitfire paychecks, copies of which were provided to the Star-Telegram. Esquivel arrived with many of his Bombers players and coaches, and almost instantly had a powerhouse 8-and-under squad.
Ultimately, Esquivel’s relationship with Murphy and Boyd turned acrimonious and he was fired. He returned to the Bombers and took with him many of the players and coaches he brought to Spitfire.
Esquivel’s friend coach Chabriel Pizarro remained. A couple weeks ago the coach posted a note on Facebook seeking a player to join his 10-and-under team that will compete in the World Series in Orlando. He wrote: “All payments [followed by an emoji of an airplane and a hotel] for the child and one parent …”
When asked about it, Pizarro responded that it was only a “hook” and “that’s not the deal.”
Pizarro’s explanation made Esquivel chuckle.
He even poked fun at Pizarro’s Facebook post, commenting that Pizarro should use Murphy and Boyd’s private plane — which they’ve used to shuttle players and their parents to out-of-state tournaments, according to Esquivel — and hold tryouts in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.
“Yes, they are going to pay for some kids,” Esquivel said. “That’s not a bad deal. I’m going to do it for three or four of my players.”
Love him or hate him, Esquivel isn’t in it to make friends.
“Winners always have critics and haters,” Esquivel said. “People think you can go pick up the best 10 kids from across the nation and you’re just going to win. Not so fast. It doesn’t work that way. Winning will happen when you do it right. I choose certain kids for certain reasons.
“I’m the best at what I do for a reason,” he said. “I spend hours daily making this all work.”
Jeff Caplan: 817-390-7705, @Jeff_Caplan