Remember the terror you felt as a child going to bat in a Little League game for the first time? Shopping for youth baseball equipment isn't quite that daunting. But if you don't know what you're doing, it's easy to swing and miss.
Back when we were Little Leaguers, baseball bats and fielder's gloves came in a few standard models, usually stacked in a dusty corner of the sporting-goods store. Now the array of colors, sizes, and product names far exceeds the pinstripes on Alex Rodriguez' Yankees uniform. Prices might surprise A-Rod, too. My 17-year-old son's latest acquisitions: an Easton Stealth bat ($280) and Rawlings' Pro Preferred catcher's mitt ($240). We're sharing the cost.
For younger children, prices don't run that high. Still, it pays to observe a few ground rules when searching for the next addition to your child's equipment bag:
BIGGER ISN'T ALWAYS BETTER
The most common mistake parents make is picking out a glove that's larger than their child can handle. "Parents feel the larger the glove, the more balls the child will catch. That's not the case," says Jeff Burton, merchandising vice-president at Baseball Express, an online equipment store based in San Antonio (baseballexpress.com). For small children, a large glove can be difficult to snap open and shut when a ball comes their way. Baseball Express shows you how to measure a glove (from the tip of the middle finger to the base of the palm) and match a player to the proper glove size by age and favorite position.
APPLY THE SAME THINKING TO BATS
Some parents lean toward buying longer, heavier bats than their child can easily handle. They reason that the kid player is less likely to outgrow this new possession in a year or two. Nice try. But that thinking won't be much comfort when Jane or Billy is struggling to swing. A six-year-old slugger should be using a bat 24 to 26 inches long. That one will be a good fit for the season ahead, not two or three down the road.
REVIEW THE LEAGUE'S EQUIPMENT RULES
How would you feel if you bought a $100 bat, then found out your child couldn't use it because it didn't fit the league's criteria? Many youth leagues have rules covering equipment. To learn the dos and don'ts, call your league president or visit the organization on the Internet. At the Web site of Little League Baseball (littleleague.org), I found a list of approved nonwood bats -- and model numbers -- from 16 manufacturers. In some leagues, parents are also asked to provide batting helmets. In our league in Baltimore, a local ordinance requires that players wear helmets outfitted with a horizontal, three-bar protective cage. The kids grumble. But since the new helmets arrived, we've had no reason to call the dentist.
DON'T BUY THE HYPE
Since our days on the diamond, youth baseball equipment has gone upscale. Nike's (NKE ) Cal Ripken series youth gloves, which cost $60, feature "tumbled full-grain leather" that is buttery soft. Bats such as Rawlings' Plasma and Louisville Slugger's Air Omaha sell for $160 and more. For serious kid players who crave top competition, top-of-the-line equipment can be the right choice. For most children, though, you can skip the fancy stuff. A $30 glove made of less durable leather should suffice. As for bats, the latest models may smash balls with more power, but "99% of hitting is technique and an expensive bat doesn't help with that," says former big-leaguer Jason Thompson, who runs a baseball school for kids in Rochester Hills, Mich. (jasonthompsonbaseball.com).
DON'T SKIP THE TRYOUT
Reserve an afternoon so your child can check out as many gloves and bats as possible. "Sometimes, a bat just has a good feeling in your hands," says former New York Yankees slugger Steve Balboni, who runs a baseball school in Edison, N.J. (stevebalboni.com).
As Little League season nears, don't forget the most important advice to a youth ballplayer of this or any generation: Before you take your new bat or glove to the ball field, remember to get an indelible marker and write your name on it.
By Mark Hyman