Fuel costs forcing youth teams to juggle schedules|[5/30/06]

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Last summer, coaches and parents of the Vicksburg Angels and Mississippi Mudcats sat down and plotted a tour that would have made a rock star jealous.

Baton Rouge. Shreveport. Memphis. All were potential destinations for the young tournament teams.

This summer, the list is much shorter. Although they’re playing as many tournaments as ever, high gas prices have forced the teams to stay closer to home in their pursuit of state championships and baseball fun.

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&#8220We’re still playing, but we’re trying to be more conservative and play closer to Vicksburg. We haven’t really discussed it a whole lot, but it is a concern,” said Peter Mims, a coach for the Angels’ 12-year-olds’ team. &#8220We talked about making one trip to go off and spend the night.”

Tournament baseball has never been a cheap undertaking. Entry fees typically range between $100 and $500 per team, and individual parents can shell out hundreds of dollars for equipment. The biggest cost, however, has always been travel.

Most teams play about a dozen tournaments a summer, almost always multiple-day affairs on the weekend. With games early in the morning on Saturday and drives of at least a few hours each way to reach most locations, that means one or two nights in a hotel. Add in one or two tanks of gas for each trip, and the cost skyrockets.

And with the price of gasoline nearly double what it was just two years ago, teams that previously had a nice-sized travel budget are having to carefully pick and choose which tournaments they go to.

&#8220A couple of years ago I could go to Southaven and spend maybe $40 on gas. Now I’m going to spend $150,” said Marshall Upton, coach of the 11-year-olds’ Mudcats team. &#8220It’s a hardship on everybody. You’re talking about parents who are using their credit cards and they spend all year paying that off. We’ve lost parents and kids because of the rising cost.”

Fortunately, the solution was as close as the next town over.

A rise in the number of tournament teams in the Jackson area has led to an increase in the number of tournaments there. With Vicksburg less than an hour away, that has allowed the city’s teams to play tournaments without blowing their entire travel budget.

It’s a tactic many teams around the state are adopting. While the number of teams playing baseball has stayed the same, both Mims and Upton said most of the teams they’ve played this summer are from central Mississippi. In the past, they encountered squads from all over the state in nearly every tournament.

&#8220The last tournament we went to, I saw a lot of local teams. Not a lot of teams from the north and south,” said Upton, whose Mudcats will play in about a dozen tournaments this summer.

The close-to-home philosophy could also end up benefiting Vicksburg’s own youth tournament. The Governor’s Cup, which has expanded to include more than 60 teams in recent years, figures to draw about the same amount this year.

A lot of teams from central Mississippi will likely attend, and some teams may use it as their one big trip of the summer. The spot on the schedule, near the end of the summer tournament season, makes it ideal for a year-end blowout.

&#8220Vicksburg is so centrally located that it’s easy to get teams,” said Upton, who has served as a Governor’s Cup tournament director on several occasions. &#8220I don’t think we’ll have any problems with the Governor’s Cup.”