Karl “KB” Blum swings a bat in the on-deck circle and tries to breathe. He has played 125 games this spring and summer, jetting around the country, bunking in anonymous hotel rooms, and now it has come to this. Tri-State Arsenal Red, KB’s team, is trailing 3-1 with two outs in the last inning of what, barring a dramatic last-at-bat comeback, will be their final game in the 13-and-under Elite World Series in Orlando, Florida. It’s a defining moment for KB. Start a game-winning rally, and scouts and college coaches will learn his name. Fail to deliver, and he’s just another teenager with a bat and glove.
KB came into the series as one of Arsenal’s most promising stars, but he’s been in something of a slump, notching just four hits in his seventeen at-bats so far. He takes his place in the batter’s box and digs in. He fiddles with his jersey, taps home plate, and fixes his eyes on the pitcher. It’s only 10 a.m., but the August sun is relentless. The crowd is as loud as it’s been all week. “C’mon!” an Arsenal parent screams from behind the dugout. “We can do this! KB, let’s go!”
If it’s hard to imagine how a professional ballplayer can perform under this much pressure, it’s nearly impossible to understand how a 13-year-old can do it.
Baseball has never been as innocent as we collectively mythologize it, not at any level. Steroids and other performance- enhancing drugs are only the latest unsightly scar on the game; overbearing fathers have been screaming at Little League coaches, umpires, and kids (sometimes other people’s, sometimes their own) for generations. Never before, however, has kids’ baseball been so high-powered as it is now, and the point of the high-pressure youth-baseball spear is arguably 13-year-old travel ball and the 13-and-under Elite World Series in particular. Little League baseball is certainly a more intense pursuit than it once was, but the fields are still kid-size, the coaches wear Dockers, not uniforms, and the game somehow maintains an ineffable quality of kindness (there is crying in Little League). Although high-school ball, for its part, can be all but quasi professional, it is played by high-school kids, many of them 17 or 18 years old. Thirteen-and-under ball exists on a unique point on the spectrum. The kids are grown-up enough to play on full-size fields and skilled enough to play the game at a high level, but they’re still a long way from being fully developed, physically or emotionally. They may look and play like men, but they are still, in reality, boys.
Elite youth baseball players typically come from California, Florida, and other Sun Belt states, where the climate allows year-round play. But improbably enough, the New York area has its own pocket of youth-baseball excellence: Toms River, New Jersey. A team from Toms River won the Little League World Series in 1998, and the town is unabashedly baseball-obsessed. There are seemingly more baseball diamonds per capita than anywhere this side of the Dominican Republic. There is a fall instructional league for 6-year-olds. The best players are regarded as local heroes.
KB Blum is arguably the premier Toms River player his age, and one of the best 13-and-under players in America. That status affords KB and the hundreds of other top prospects his age around the country tremendous opportunities. A few may make it to the big leagues, some may parlay their talent into a college scholarship, and almost all will enjoy the benefits that playing competitive team sports can yield, not least of all having fun. Still, being an ultra-elite 13-year-old ballplayer isn’t all walk-off home runs and high-fives. It requires a massive time commitment, extensive travel, and a willingness to sacrifice many of the things that typical 13-year-olds do. Fathers, no matter how well meaning, often push kids too hard. Injuries happen, sometimes career-ending ones. Winning can be thrilling, but losing can be crushing, and the burden of expectations is immense.
Back on the field in Orlando, KB stares out at the opposing pitcher. The first pitch is a fastball on the outside corner. The umpire raises his right fist. Strike one.
When KB was 2 years old, he already had Mike Piazza’s batting stance down. He would hold up his hand—asking for time from an invisible ump—then gingerly place his tiny feet into an imaginary batter’s box one at a time. He’d give his butt a Piazza wiggle and wave his plastic bat in the manner of his idol. His father, Karl Sr., would then toss KB a Wiffle ball—he tried to give his son 30 pitches a day—which KB would, as often as not, hammer. KB would then go into his home-run trot.
Karl is an an orthopedic surgeon who was raised in northern New Jersey. KB’s mother, Linda, is a radiologist whose family barely escaped the fall of Saigon. Karl and Linda met in medical school. KB, who turned 14 in June, is the oldest of the couple’s three children. His younger brother, Kevin, is 12, and his sister, Kiera, is 2.
KB just started ninth grade, but he stands over six feet tall and weighs 165 pounds. He has striking Asian-American features that would not look out of place on a CW drama. He is friendly and humble and smiles a lot. He doesn’t take himself too seriously: He laughs off the fact that a white teammate lists him on his phone list under “VC.”
KB started playing T-ball when he was 5. At first, he wasn’t that interested. Soccer was his sport. But Karl loved the game, and started hitting KB ground balls for an hour every afternoon. “I didn’t start loving it until I was 7,” says KB. “That’s when the dads started pitching, and I could really hit. Before that it was boring.”
At first, KB was merely good, not great. But around age 9 or 10, he started pitching shutouts and was one of the first kids his age to hit a home run. In one game, he put his team ahead with a triple, then came in as a pitcher to notch the save. “I thought, ‘I’m not just okay, I’m really good at this,’ ” KB says. “It was pretty cool.”
Little League players are assigned to teams through a draft; fathers can coach their own sons’ teams if the league approves. Several coaches approached Karl and asked him to join their staff. That way, they hoped, they could automatically get KB. League officials said no way. KB made all the Toms River Little League all-star teams. By sixth grade, the whole town wanted to know where he’d go to high school.
At home, Karl built a state-of-the-art practice facility for KB and Kevin that included a batting cage, a pitching mound, and stadium lights for nighttime workouts. The third story of the family’s house was converted from a media room into an indoor training facility. No matter how cold it got outside, Karl could still toss KB ground balls and have his son hit 50 pitches a day into a net.
KB and Karl would watch Mets broadcasts every night and dissect the players’ games. “Jose Reyes has always been my favorite,” KB says. “He seems to have a lot of fun playing, but I don’t know where his head is sometimes.”
By the time he was 12, KB was dominating Toms River baseball. He started the 2008 season 17 for 17, with eight home runs. He didn’t strike out until his 85th at-bat, and wound up batting .900 for the season. “I just felt awesome, like every day was going to be a great game. I literally came through in every game except one.”
KB and Karl had already begun seeking bigger baseball challenges. In the summer of 2007, KB had played for a Toms River Little League all-star team in a tournament held in Cooperstown, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame. The team did well in the first round, but got slaughtered by several travel teams in the second round. They lost one game 27-0.
“I want to play on a team like that,” KB told Karl.
Karl contacted a team called the Boys of Baseball, an Alabama-based national travel squad that cherry-picked top players from across the country. They’d meet in Florida, say, or Tennessee for tournaments, and dominate based on sheer talent. KB persuaded his dad to fly him to Troy, Alabama, for a tryout. Steve Cosgrove, the team’s hard-driving coach and a renowned figure in teen baseball, put KB and other prospects through six hours of drills. The sun faded, and Cosgrove began to walk off the field. All he said was, “I’ll see you in Gainesville in December.”
“Does that mean KB made the team?” Karl asked.
“That’s what it means,” said Cosgrove.
KB played with the Boys of Baseball for one season. But in September 2008, Cosgrove disbanded the team and published a cri de coeur on his website. He argued that travel baseball had become too much about winning at all costs. (He had a point, even if he was partially responsible for creating the problem.)
That winter, a friend told the Blums about a travel coach named Bob Barth. Barth is six-one, close to 300 pounds, and in his early thirties. He and his father run an elite baseball clinic called the Hit Doctor Baseball and Softball Academy, housed in an enormous warehouselike building in Voorhees, New Jersey, about an hour and a half from Toms River. The Barths manage 32 travel teams for boys from 9 to 18 years old. On a typical winter Saturday, up to 500 kids make their way through the Hit Doctor facility, some paying $75 an hour for personal instruction. Bob also serves as a part-time scout for the San Francisco Giants. The Blums signed KB up for Barth’s 13-and-under Tri-State Arsenal team. KB joined the team in March.
KB’s life since, like many travel-ball kids’ lives, has been almost entirely devoted to baseball. In addition to Arsenal, KB has played on his school team, a local all-star squad, two other travel teams that compete mostly in New Jersey, and a second national travel team. During the summer, KB would play two or three games locally during the week; make the drive down to Voorhees once or twice a week for Arsenal practice; and then head out on the weekends to Michigan, South Carolina, or wherever, for tournaments. During the school year, the travel schedule is less arduous, but KB still plays and practices with several teams, and he and Karl often work out after school. KB’s baseball bag holds nearly $2,000 worth of gear. There are three $400 aluminum bats, a $400 Rawlings glove, and a pair of $200 Oakley wraparound sunglasses. Karl’s baseball-related expenses total some $20,000 a year. KB doesn’t watch his diet or take supplements, but he says he has played with kids who take creatine and has heard rumors of slightly older local kids using steroids.
KB’s ultimate dream, of course, would be to play professionally, ideally in the major leagues. More realistically, he’d like to play for a top college program, or at least use baseball to enhance his chances of getting into college. “Maybe he gets good enough, and baseball gets him into Princeton through the back door,” says Karl. Professional scouts and college coaches don’t seriously start looking at players until they’re 15, but travel-ball websites maintain national “players to watch” lists of 13-year-olds, and there’s a kind of downward pressure to excel at an early age. “The question is, would KB be playing for an elite 15-year-old team if he didn’t play elite thirteens?” Karl says.
The odds of even an elite young player making it to the major leagues are, for the record, beyond remote. In the 50-year history of the Little League World Series, more than 5,000 kids have played in the event. Fewer than 40 of them have made it to the majors. But what if your boy is the next Jeter? Shouldn’t he have the best training he can get? Isn’t that what you’d give him if he were an ace violinist?
There are just enough outsize success stories to keep parents and kids dreaming. Just three years ago, the most talked-about 13-year-old player in the country was a Las Vegas boy named Bryce Harper. He played on five different teams when he was 12. In June, Harper was on the cover of Sports Illustrated as the next can’t-miss kid. He is expected to be a top-ten draft pick in 2010 and could sign for a bonus worth $10 million.
“That 3-1 pitch was meat. You have to hit that,” KB’s father says. “That’s why you’re on this team.”
On a brilliant summer afternoon, Karl and KB head to a Toms River diamond for a workout. Karl lugs a bucket of balls onto the field and begins hitting grounders to KB at shortstop. At times, Karl seems more like a buddy to KB than a dad. He playfully refers to KB as “my brotha.” (At a restaurant in Florida, I saw Karl harmlessly flirt with a waitress. “Dad, she’s like 20,” KB said. “C’mon.”) Next Karl fires balls at KB from a few feet away. KB catches the ball and drops it while Karl throws the next one, and so on, in rapid-fire succession. “I picked this up from an Ozzie Smith video,” says Karl, wiping his brow. “I talk to a lot of coaches about drills. It’s all about repetition.” Later, Karl joins KB in 200-yard wind sprints. KB starts fast but quickly downshifts to a trot. Karl goes full-out the whole way.
Growing up in small-town Roseland, Karl was himself a dominant Little League player. “I still see guys who remember that I hit three homers in a game,” Karl says with a smile. But for high school, his parents sent him to Seton Hall Prep, 30 minutes away in South Orange. He had no ride home, so he didn’t play baseball.
“When I got to be 18, I went off to Rutgers and was playing ball behind the dorms,” Karl says.
KB interrupts with a melodramatic sigh. “Oh, I hear this story all the time,” he says.
Karl is undeterred. “Anyway, I was really hitting the ball, and running down every fly ball, and people were asking me why I didn’t play for the school. I can’t turn back the clock, but I always thought I could have been something. That’s always been a little bit of a regret. I don’t want KB to have that regret. I never took grounders; I’ve been hitting grounders to KB since he was 5.”
Tri-State Arsenal’s 2009 season started off well. The team won 48 of their first 50 games, and KB, who pitches and also plays third base and shortstop, got off to a solid start. His name appeared on one of the national players-to-watch lists. “That was cool,” KB admits. He’s a little embarrassed. “I tried not to make a big deal about it.”
But things began to change in April, at a tournament in North Carolina. Arsenal led the highly ranked East Cobb Astros 5-3, with two outs in the last inning and two men on base. Arsenal’s shortstop was brought in to pitch. KB was switched from third base to short.
The next batter hit a sky-high pop-up. The Arsenal parents all but started high-fiving. KB watched the ball into his glove and began to squeeze it, the same way he had a thousand times before. Then he saw the ball rolling in the dirt. He stared uncomprehendingly for a moment. The tying runs scored. Parents cursed. Karl bit his lip. KB walked the ball back to the pitcher.
“Get out of here,” his teammate snapped.
The game ended in a tie when it hit the two-hour time limit, a standard tournament practice, but it didn’t lessen the disappointment. For the first time, KB began worrying about baseball rather than just playing it. He pitched several solid games, but as the season progressed, he started making uncharacteristic errors. In July, he began asking his father for ice after games, something he had never done before. With all the games he’d been playing for different teams, KB had racked up a lot of innings. “My arm feels funny,” KB said. The number of teenagers needing Tommy John surgery, a complex operation in which torn elbow ligaments are replaced with tendons, has increased from nearly zero a decade ago to hundreds last year. Doctors cite the additional innings kids are pitching as a primary cause. “It’s not a natural motion,” says Dr. Frank Jobe, who pioneered the surgery for major-leaguers in the seventies. “Kids’ bodies are still growing, and their mechanics are not what they should be. It’s just too much at that age.”
Despite being an orthopedic surgeon himself, Karl left much of the decision-making about throwing to his son. When he tried to yank KB from one of his grade-school games, KB shouted back, “I’ve got a no-hitter. I’m staying in.” Karl didn’t fight him.
By the time Tri-State Arsenal headed to Florida for the World Series, KB was at a crossroads of sorts. “I realize that there’s a lot of players just as good or better than me,” he told me with a sheepish smile. “It’s better to know that now. I’ve got to step it up. This is what I love to do.”
This year’s 13-and-under Elite World Series was held at the Wide World of Sports complex, adjacent to Disney World in Orlando. There were eight diamonds, 32 teams, and more than 400 players—perhaps some 80 percent of the country’s top 13-years-olds.
Karl had rented a condo for himself, KB, and the fathers and sons of two of his teammates, but the Blums arrived last and got the smallest room. “The Blummer got screwed,” Karl says, half-joking.
In another room there’s Morgan Gray, an Upper East Side kid with long curly hair, accompanied by his father, Mitchel. Morgan’s a wisecracker whose worldview has been shaped from repeated viewings of Seth Rogen movies. “I just got a text from a girl who’s doing yoga,” he whispered to KB out of his father’s earshot. “That’s hot.”
The wives are back home with other kids and jobs, so the place turns into a cross-generational Animal House. The furniture quickly vanishes under cases of Gatorade, Bud Light cans, board shorts, and dirty socks.
Sean Kelly and his dad, Mark, occupy the third bedroom. Sean’s a South Jersey kid with a crew cut and a boxer’s mug. He hasn’t played much and has adopted black humor as his coping mechanism. One day, his dad talked about going for a run. “You can’t run,” joked his son. “I should know. I’m the team’s designated pinch runner.”
The first two days of the tournament establish seeding. After that, it’s two games a day, double elimination. Arsenal won its first two games, and KB went a solid 2 for 6 at the plate. Today’s game is against the Terror, a Louisiana-based team considered one of the top five teams in the country.
KB walks on to the field and high-fives Bobby Moretti Jr., one of his best friends on the team. Bobby is as quiet as KB is friendly. He comes from Milford, Connecticut, where his father, Bob Sr., sells scrap tires to pay for his son’s games. Bobby Jr. helped pitch Shelton, Connecticut (his mother lives there, making him eligible), to the Little League World Series last year; he is Arsenal’s ace. The two boys’ fathers are also opposites. Karl is the glad-handing doctor; Bob Sr. is tightly wound, chews tobacco, and dresses in baseball jerseys and gym shorts. Bob Sr. was recently approached by a Seattle Mariners scout who asked about the correct spelling of his son’s name.
“But he’s only 13,” said Bob Sr.
“It’s never too early to call it in,” said the scout.
The game begins with Bobby at first, but KB on the bench. Karl stands alone on a far bleacher. “KB isn’t in the starting lineup, not even at DH,” he says. “That never happens.” Ever since he flubbed the pop-up against East Cobb, KB’s playing time in the field had been declining. Lately, he’d been mainly pitching or playing DH.
Arsenal jumps out to a quick 5-2 lead. The fathers exchange thumbs-up and toast each other with beers. But then a fastball hits Bobby on his shoulder. At first, Bob Sr. says nothing, but he’s seething. The next time around, Bobby Jr. is hit again, this time with an errant breaking ball. Neither pitch seemed intentional, but Bob Sr. jumps up and shouts, “If he gets hit again, I’m coming over the wall.”
An Arsenal parent makes an attempt to calm him down. Moretti jerks his hand away. “Don’t you dare tell me how to raise my son!”
Arsenal starts to fall apart. Their three-run lead disappears in a cavalcade of errors and missed opportunities. Still, come last at-bats, the team is only down by two runs. Arsenal mounts a rally. After a hit and a walk, there are two on, with two out. Barth points into the dugout for a pinch hitter.
It’s KB. He’d only pinch-hit once or twice before. He takes a few practice swings and strolls to the plate. The crowd is a Tower of Babel, two dozen parents shouting different instructions.
KB didn’t tell anyone about his sore arm. “It was a big tournament. There were people watching. I had to play.”
KB works the count to three balls and a strike. He waits for his pitch. The pitcher gives him a fastball over the middle of the plate, but KB watches it sail by for a strike. Karl lets out a grimace. KB walks on the next pitch to load the bases, but the opportunity is missed. The next batter lines out to left field.
Arsenal winds up losing, 7-5. Bob Sr. is still steaming. He paces back and forth. A parent asks him to behave for the good of the team; Moretti snaps back and waves a finger. “I have everything invested in my son. Everything!”
Bobby Jr. watches from ten feet away. He says nothing, and then walks off in the opposite direction. Today is his birthday.
Karl approaches KB. “That 3-1 pitch was meat. You have to hit that,” he says. “That’s why you’re on this team.”
KB offers a hangdog look. “I know. I just froze.”
Although the fathers take the losses hard, their sons’ memory banks are easier to wipe clean. A few hours later, KB is in a game room with Morgan at an ESPN Club restaurant. The machines blink and chime. KB spots a shy blonde tween in cutoffs. The two circle each other. The girl picks up a mini-basketball from a basket and starts dribbling. KB picks up a basketball and dribbles, too. He then cracks a smile. The two almost make small talk, but then an older boy and a fortyish woman come over. The girl reluctantly walks away.
“Older brother and a mom,” KB tells his dad. “I can’t compete with that.” He scratches his head. “Man, this has been a long day.”
It’s midnight in the Magic Kingdom. Disney World’s nightly fireworks have long faded away, but day three of the World Series staggers into hour seventeen. Games aren’t supposed to start this late, but lightning storms have set the event hopelessly behind. Tonight, the officials look the other way. “Someone is going to call child services on us,” jokes one parent. No one laughs.
Arsenal had played its first elimination-round game earlier in the day against Action Baseball, a team from Texas. Bobby Jr. was tapped to pitch and hurled an impressive 6-5, complete-game victory. But the celebration was marred when Bob Sr. shook Barth’s hand and said, “Congratulations, but you threw my kid under the bus. He should have pitched the East Cobb game.”
The East Cobb game, a much-anticipated rematch against the suburban Atlanta-based powerhouse, is now set to begin. A boy named Matt Vogel starts the game for Arsenal. Vogel features an 80-mph fastball, but it has none of Bobby Moretti’s movement, and Vogel gets tattooed for ten hits and five runs. By the fourth inning, Barth has seen enough. “KB, warm up.”
Back in the condo that afternoon, Karl had asked KB if his arm was okay.
“It’s fine. I can pitch. No problem,” KB had said.
Karl had nodded his head in agreement. “He says he’s fine.”
But later, during warm-ups, Bob Sr. mentioned to me that KB had unconsciously dropped his motion from overhand to the three-quarter slot, a move that can reduce the strain on KB’s elbow but costs him critical velocity. “You can tell he’s hurting,” Bob Sr. said. “He shouldn’t pitch.”
KB enters the East Cobb game in the fifth inning, with two men on and Arsenal trailing 6-0. If a team falls behind by eight or more runs, the game is over by virtue of the mercy rule—an ignominious fate. KB throws his first pitch. It sails wide. He walks a batter, hits another, throws a wild pitch, and then walks in the eighth run. Game over. KB sprints from the mound, throws his cap and glove to the ground, then kicks both objects all the way to the dugout. Later, I ask him how he is feeling, and he quietly admits that his elbow had been aching for weeks. “I didn’t tell anyone,” he said. “It was a big tournament. There were a lot of people watching. I had to play.”
Things only got worse from there. Despite operating on just three hours’ sleep, Arsenal staved off elimination the next day with two impressive victories, the second one a heart-stopping one-run affair that reminded everyone how much fun playing baseball can be. But their next game was yet another elimination game—the contest that featured KB’s decisive at-bat. The opponent was a team called Nitro from Phoenix, and Arsenal trailed 3-1 going into the final inning. The first two batters were retired. KB took the second pitch for another strike. The Arsenal parents had been complaining about the strike zone throughout the game, but their protestations seemed to have an unintended effect. The next pitch was well wide.
“Strike three!” screamed the ump.
A parent yelled, “Goddamn it, KB. Swing the bat!”
Just like that, the season was over.
KB and Karl trudged back to their car in silence. Back at the condo, KB slumped on the couch. “This tournament was a big opportunity, and I shit the bed. I’m pretty sure I won’t be on any ‘players to watch’ lists next year,” he said. His ever-present smile was nowhere in sight.
It’s a few weeks after Orlando, and Karl and KB are back in Toms River, gearing up for the fall season. It is KB’s first day of high school, and he is feeling overwhelmed. “I always got good grades, but I don’t do that great a job now of balancing baseball and my studies,” he says as he wolfs down a chicken sandwich and fries at a local restaurant. “I think I need to get out of one of my honors classes.”
Karl is sitting next to him. I ask Karl if he thinks the Arsenal season was worth it. He shrugs his shoulders. “I remember one of the early tournaments at Cal Ripken’s fields in Maryland. It was eleven o’clock, and the kids were still playing, and I had patients to see in the morning, and KB had school. I was agitated. But all the other parents were calm. They knew the drill. You just get used to the craziness.”
Karl never took KB to have his arm examined. He told KB to take a few weeks off from throwing, and KB said the pain was gone. Karl was satisfied. “He just was hurting in Florida,” Karl says. “It’s too bad. He was so good earlier in the season. Next year, he’s not going to pitch for the local teams as much.”
The first time I had talked to Karl, he and KB had just been on the road fifteen out of sixteen weekends, and Blum joked that KB’s butt was still sore from a fourteen-hour ride to Myrtle Beach and back to play four games. He told me he had asked KB why the neighborhood kids don’t call him to go to the movies. “I’m gone too much,” KB told him. “They gave up on me.”
Karl invited me to come down to Orlando for the World Series and see the travel-ball world for myself. “You get caught up in it, and then you just hold on,” he told me. “I have no idea if I’m doing the right thing. We’ll stop when it’s not fun.”
Back at the restaurant, KB puts down his phone. He had been texting a friend about the first day of school. What does he think about the Arsenal season? “I learned a lot. I learned it isn’t going to be easy,” he says. He picks up his phone and begins texting again. “Besides, I love it. Every day. Well, almost every day. I didn’t love it down in Florida.”
We pay the check and head to the parking lot. Karl’s face lights up as he slides behind the wheel. “We’re going to Las Vegas next month. That’s going to be a great tournament. You should come.”