Premium steer leather baseball gloves. Digital, air-powered pitching machines. Titanium- core aluminum bats. Sports equipment has come a long way since baseball mitts were made of flesh-colored padding with the fingers cut out.
But with technological sophistication comes confusion: Should you go with new or used equipment? How do you know which glove to get? Does a $300 bat really make a difference? And just how do you find the right gear for your son or daughter without taking out a second mortgage on your home?
Below are five tips to help parents save time, money--and possibly a bit of sanity--as they navigate the perilous process of buying summer sporting equipment for youth athletes.
Tip No. 1: Something old, something new
Used equipment. It used to mean battered hand-me-downs from older relatives or discarded gear left on a diamond somewhere. But with the success of online marketplaces such as ebay and Amazon, as well as retail outlets like Play it Again Sports, the savvy sports-equipment shopper can find used bargains -- without sacrificing quality.
"As long as you know who you're dealing with, buying equipment used is a good way to save money," says Kelly Sports equipment representative, Wes Hand.
How good? According to Hand, by purchasing last year's version of a particular bat it's possible to save close to 40 percent -- where the difference between the two models can be little more than a "paint job." Bargains can be even bigger for gloves and field gear such as balls and tees.
But is there some equipment that just shouldn't be bought used?
"The only thing I don't like to buy used are helmets or masks. It's like a car seat -- you can't really tell what it's been through," says Hand.
Bottom Line: Don't skimp on safety equipment. Items such as balls, tees, and wiffles make great used purchases. You can save a lot of money on pre-owned bats--but be careful. As Deb Yeagle of Fredericksburg, Va. points out, "Don't pay a lot for used bats as they sometimes lose their pop."
Tip No. 2: One size fits all
Bill Hall of the Milwaukee Brewers would be a parent's worst nightmare. The super-utility player can play six different positions and carries as many as five different gloves with him at any given time. Luckily there is a way parents can outfit their first baseman/left fielder/shortstop/relief pitcher without applying for a loan.
"Kids move positions a lot. That can be very expensive," says Hand. "Go with a utility size glove -- 12 ? for softball and 11 ? for baseball are general guidelines -- and that should service every position on the field save for catcher."
Still, not all gloves are created equal. Stacie Mahoe of All About Fastpitch believes gloves are one area where a well-known brand can make a world of difference.
"Cheap gloves wear out fast. If I hear from a lot of people that a particular product is good, I'll find a way to pay a few extra dollars."
The key to finding the perfect glove? Get the right size, right now.
"Buy something for today," says Hand. "Don't buy something for them to grow into. That's for shirts and jeans."
Bottom Line: Buy as much glove as you can afford. Get the right size and go with utility gloves for numerous position changes.
Tip No. 3: Finding your inner slugger
"I can't imagine paying $200 on a bat for a kid."
Robert Burnett of Boston echoes a sentiment many frustrated parents feel. The pressure to outfit youth athletes with expensive and brand-name equipment can often be more intense than a bottom-of-the-ninth, bases-loaded situation. But does a well-known brand name bat really make a difference? Hand doesn't think so.
"A lot of it is marketing. Different bats all have to meet the same standards. I've seen kids stink it up with a $300 bat and do really well with a $25 Wal-Mart special."
But that doesn't mean high-end bats don't have their advocates. Check out the eteamz message boards and you'll see testimonials touting the top-heavy nature of Louisville Sluggers, double-walled De Marini bats or even the powerful barrels that accompany Easton bats. As Yeagle puts it "Quality equipment is important and does make a difference."
But the one thing everyone agrees on is that beyond a particular brand, the most important part of choosing a bat is the way it feels to the player.
"Just go with what feels good. Don't get caught up in who made the bat. The kid needs to feel comfortable," Hand says.
Part of being comfortable is making sure the bat isn't too heavy. Hand has a very easy way to test a kid's comfort level with a bat: Have your kid hold the bat straight out (parallel to the ground) with their dominant hand for a count of 10. (Feel free to have them choke up a bit, if needed.) If their wrist and arm starts shaking by count three or four it's time to look for a lighter bat.
Bottom Line: Go for the bat that "feels" right and not the most expensive brand you can find. Do an in-store test to be sure the bat isn't too heavy.