Safety or Performance?

1 04 2010

Having worked at two of the premiere local newspapers on the Peninsula I know that the the work done at the Daily Journal is the best — using only a two-man crew we do the job of at least a 6-person sports staff. Nathan Mollat and Emanuel Lee are incredible. Today’s “Sports Lounge” column by Nathan is one of his best, I think. Very informative and definitely a must-read for those who live prep sports, especially baseball. I’m posting his column here, but to read more of his stuff, and Emanuel’s, hit up this link http://bit.ly/aVhLSf and search the archives (on the left).

Safety being replaced by performance
By Nathan Mollat Daily Journal Staff

If you listen carefully, the sound of “pings” off the bat at many levels of youth baseball are being replaced with the more familiar “crack” so many of older generations grew up with.But these are not coming off your grandfathers’ bats. The advent of the composite bat — which are created by layering materials such as carbon fiber, kevlar and other strong, lightweight metals to produce what appears to be one solid shape — has brought the “crack” back to the game of baseball. Not just off the bat but off the heads and bodies of the pitchers and infielders. It is these “hot” bats that are drawing new cries of bat banning at the Little League, high school and college levels, especially in light of the Marin County player who clings to life after being drilled by a ball during a high school game March 11.

They say professional baseball would never allow the use of metal or composite bats because someone would get killed. Can’t the same thing happen at other levels?

I know some of you out there are saying, “There are certain inherent risks associated with playing sports.” And I agree wholeheartedly. There should be an expected risk of INJURY — not DEATH — and it won’t be long before some poor kid is killed on the baseball diamond by a batter using a bat that can turnaround an 85-mph fastball at 110 mph.

Vanderbilt University manager Tim Corbin, in a report by ESPN last summer, said it was common to see balls come off the bat at 95 to 99 mph. Last season, he saw balls coming off bats in excess of 110 mph, topping out at 117. Corbin was a leading proponent of the bat ban the NCAA incorporated this season, according to the report. The report said bats were tested against the NCAA’s rules regarding bats. Eighty percent of the bats that were tested failed.

In a Chicago Tribune report about a proposed bat ban at the high school level in the city, a brain injury specialist, Dr. Richard Senno, said balls come off metal bats 15 to 20 percent faster than wood bats.

“An increased sweet spot, plus increased velocity of a ball coming off a bat less the reaction … equals injury,” Senno was quoted as saying.

Some coaches that I talk to believe banning metal and composite bats is not necessarily the answer. Wood bats can cause just as much damage — that is if the player can even get “get wood” on a pitch.

And there in lies the rub. While no one ever dreams that their swing would cause someone’s death, they also want to have as much success as they can at the plate. Thus, they use metal and composites, which are infinitely more forgiving and easier to swing than wood bats.

Using wood bats is, “A different game,” said Carlmont assistant coach Rick Lavezzo, who, ironically enough, makes wood bats.

But hasn’t the advent of metals — and now composite bats — changed the game as well? Watching Little Leaguers hit absolute bombs? Or watching college pitchers get smacked around as teams combine to score 20, 30 runs in a game?

Maybe it’s time to go back to the “good ‘ol days” of wood bat games. After all, “America’s Pastime,” Major League Baseball, uses wood bats at every level, why should the professional game be any different than it is at any other level? Basketball is basically the same whether it’s pee-wees playing or pros. Same for football and soccer. A few of the rules may be tweaked, but the basic principles of the game remain the same.

But baseball changes as players progress in the game. They say baseball is a simple game: Run, throw, catch and hit. But when the equipment is changed to make it easier, isn’t that getting away from the spirit of the game?

Tim Goode, who has been involved in baseball at the Little League, high school and American Legion levels, believes it’s time to take the game back to its roots. He is a big proponent of wood bats, going so far as entering his Redwood City American Legion teams in a number of wood-bat tournaments during the summer. He realizes that it’s harder to use a wood bat, but in the long run, the player benefits.

“(Using wood bats) makes it a better game. It makes you a better hitter. Pitchers get rewarded for making good pitches,” Goode said. “It’s not just a batter’s game.”

Using wood bats forces players to be more selective at the plate. Makes them learn to square up the bat on the ball. Makes them learn how to handle a bat better. Makes them better players, period.

More important, as far as Goode is concerned, is that the safety of the players is in jeopardy. Composite bats are the newest advancement in bat technology and they can be made even better by “rolling” them: A process in which the epoxy that glues the layers of metals together is essentially removed through high pressure and the material is compressed to form a more solid barrel.

“For 30 bucks, you can get an absolute weapon,” Goode said. “It’s not a safe game anymore.”

Unfortunately, with all the money spent on coaches, lessons and equipment, many of today’s players just don’t want to put in the work required to become proficient at using wood bats. And many of today’s parents can’t stand the thought of their son or daughter experiencing anything but success. Goode said a Palo Alto league tried to go to wood bats a few years ago, but abandoned the idea because of dwindling interest.

So what is the solution? How do you balance the ease of using non-wood bats versus the risk of players’ safety? Many leagues around the country are banning the use of non-wood bats, but critics claim that puts those kids at a disadvantage of those who still use non-wood bats.

Chicago Alderman Frank Olivo put it best in that same Chicago Tribune report about the city of Chicago banning non-wood bats at the high school level. Olivo’s own son was plunked in the head by a ball off a metal bat. “It has to be done at a state or federal level,” he said. He didn’t think it would be effective — or fair — if it was a piecemeal decision by various cities and leagues.

Which is precisely what California Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, is trying to do. He is proposing a bill that would ban the use of non-wood bats at the high school level in California for three years to seek a solution. According to the Sacramento Bee, some of the suggestions are tougher bat-performance standards or protective headgear for pitchers. There is also the possibility of just banning non-wood bats altogether.

Some are saying, however, that the state should not interfere, that each league and organization should make whatever decision with which they feel most comfortable. But that gets back to Olivo’s point: It makes an unbalanced playing field between those who ban non-wood bats and those who don’t.

It appears bat makers, however, are already trying to find solutions themselves as a new bat enters the market — the composite wood bat. These bats use a variety of woods in their production in an effort to increase their longevity.

Some manufacturers are also appealing to macho aspect of players —which may be the best way to reach players. One Web site boasts: “Real players hit with wood.”

And real players aren’t afraid of wood either.

Nathan Mollat can be reached by e-mail: nathan@smdailyjournal.com or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 117.

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