Hot dogs, shelled peanuts and the smell of freshly mowed grass haven’t lost their appeal at the ballpark. Baseball isn’t synonymous with the crack of a Louisville Slugger any longer, however.

“When I watch the College World Series,” said Jeff Benson of Auburn, a longtime player, coach, umpire and school administrator, “I wait to hear that ‘ping.’ That has become the sound of baseball.”

Perhaps, but it might not be long before the children on your local Little League or high school diamond are forced to retrain their ears and their wrists.

Motivated by a fistful of frightening and fatal incidents across the country, and backed by the data in at least one prominent study, coaches, educators and politicians have begun banishing metal bats.

North Dakota has outlawed the familiar equipment from high school baseball. The move took effect this spring, three years after an 18-year-old American Legion pitcher in neighboring Montana died when he was struck in the head by a batted ball.

The city council in New York City voted overwhelmingly last month to eliminate metal bats from high school competition. The ruling would take effect in September, although it is being challenged in federal court.

Last week, Pennsylvania State Rep. Mike Carroll, himself a youth baseball coach, proposed a bill to shelve metal bats in that state’s Little League system. Similar legislation is being debated in New Jersey, where a 13-year-old went into cardiac arrest last summer after taking a line drive in the chest. Although the player survived, he spent six months in the hospital.

Closer to home, there has been no extended discussion about the issue at the State House or in Maine Principals’ Association committee meetings. With the ban coming to fruition in states with similar political sensibilities, however, at least one local coach concedes that it’s probably a matter of time.

“I think down the road it’s probably something that’s going to happen,” said Poland Regional High School coach Dave Jordan. “We’ve had some balls go back to the pitcher that I’ve been really scared for them.”

Hypothetical reaction among area baseball enthusiasts runs the gamut from skeptical and resistant to satisfied and relieved.

Old-school coaches anticipate that a return to wooden bats, which gradually grew extinct after the metal models were introduced in the 1970s, would bring important fundamentals – such as bunting and defense – back to the game. Wooden bats feel heavier in the hands and don’t seem to hit the ball as far or as fast. Wood also breaks and needs to be replaced more frequently than metal.

Administrators worry about having a new bite taken out of their already strained budgets, as well as the potential frustration factor for student-athletes in an era when participation in baseball is already declining.

Much of the evidence decrying the relative danger of metal bats, while dire in those deadly cases, is considered anecdotal.

“Until we see hard facts that a ball just comes jumping off an aluminum bat differently and poses a danger to the third baseman or the pitcher, I don’t think you’ll see it,” said Jeff Ramich, co-curricular director at Lisbon High School. “There are even new types of wooden bats that are faster than aluminum.”

Licensed to drive

Brown University published the most alarming research in 2002. Using data culled from high school and college baseball games, Brown’s report stated that baseballs rebound off a metal bat at an average of more than 93 mph, contrasted with 86 mph when the bat was constructed of wood.

Thirty-seven percent of the hits recorded by the aluminum bat topped out at over 100 mph. Only two percent of the contact with wooden bats reached that threshold.

“I think everybody’s concerned about the rebound effect,” said Bill Fairchild, retired baseball coach and current athletic director at Oak Hill High School in Wales. “As the pitchers and the hitters get stronger and stronger, there might be some validity to those concerns.”

Maine high schools follow the standard set by the National Federation of State High School Associations. Metal bats are permitted as long as the length in inches does not exceed the weight in ounces by a number greater than three.

Fairchild remembers a time not long ago when high school players would step into the batter’s box wielding a 38-inch, 28-ounce bat. Many of those aluminum bats were gas-filled.

Smart hitters, he said, would leave the bats out in the sun on a hot day and allow the gas to expand. The baseball became little more than a projectile destined either to fly 450 feet or whiz past the pitcher’s ear lobe, assuming that pitcher was lucky.

“You talk about scary,” Fairchild said.

Other athletic directors are worried about the relative cost of disallowing metal. While most of those bats retail between $200 and $350, Ramich said that one could last four or five years in the right hands.

Wooden bats are significantly cheaper, $30 to $90, depending upon the model and type of wood. But administrators worry about the potential of breaking them by the bundle in cold weather, not to mention coaches needing to retrain hitters who have never even held one.

“The kids haven’t had any experience. They don’t even know how to hit with wood,” said Benson, currently the athletic director at Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School. “When I started coaching at Telstar in the late 1970s, we were using all aluminum bats.”

Players could adapt

Jordan and Fairchild dispute notions of a steep learning curve or a severe problem with shattered bats.

Poland practices roughly once a week with wooden bats, according to Jordan, who said that most aluminum bats become obsolete in two years. Last year, his team regularly used composite wood, maple and bamboo bats in the batting cage and broke two all season.

“Guys were taking swings against a pitching machine after practice, got a little lazy with their mechanics and broke off a couple,” said Jordan. “If you teach the right mechanics, you won’t break many.”

Fairchild frequently instructed his son, Tip, now a pitcher in the Houston Astros’ organization, with a wooden bat. “It made him a better hitter. It takes a man to swing a wooden bat,” he said.

When Fairchild sees current Oak Hill players and their parents spending $300 on a single bat, the aluminum-wood debate becomes more than a discussion of safety.

“Say it’s $30 a (wooden) bat. If you’re spending $300 for a new aluminum bat every year, there’s 10 bats. Say you break two moderately priced wooden bats, it’s still not $200, which is the least expensive aluminum bat,” said Fairchild. “And if a kid’s breaking 10 bats a year, I’m going to be talking to my coaches, because they’re not teaching them how to hit the ball correctly.”

Safety vs. spending

Those embracing a throwback have plenty of numbers to use as ammunition. Seventeen players were killed by a batted ball from 1991 to 2001, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Little League’s numbers show 23 recorded injuries to pitchers in 2006 due to the so-called trampoline effect with metal bats; the ball doesn’t compress as much as it does when striking wood and much of the energy transferred to the bat on impact is returned to the ball and not absorbed, as it is with wood.

“The kids get so much individualized instruction now on hitting the ball,” Jordan said, citing training centers such as The Winning Edge in Auburn and Frozen Ropes in Westbrook. “They’re so much better than I was at that age.”

Considering the hundreds of thousands of children and adults playing baseball every year in America, though, baseball in the metal bat era maintains a sparkling safety record. (Major League Baseball does not allow metal bats.)

Critics of a total ban say no significant study has established that wooden bats are safer than metal at the Little League level, where pitchers don’t throw 80 and 90 mph. Others are concerned that morale would drop as quickly as batting averages with wooden bats, further diminishing the talent pool in a youth sport that has lost ground to soccer and lacrosse in recent years.

Plus, the adults counting the beans are busy balancing the daunting injury data with their own scary budget numbers, hoping to ensure that their kids have a place to play in five years.

“How many hits can our budget take?” Ramich asked. “How many more costs do we pass along to the kid or the parent?”

Jordan is worried that one of those fatal statistics will hit too close to home one of these days.

“We’ve been fortunate that in all my years playing and coaching, I’ve never seen anyone seriously hurt,” he said. “But we’ve come very close.”

“It takes a man to swing a wooden bat.”
– Bill Fairchild, retired baseball coach and current athletic director at Oak Hill High School in Wales
“We’ve been fortunate that in all my years playing and coaching, I’ve never seen anyone seriously hurt… But we’ve come very close.”
– Dave Jordan, Poland Regional High School coach

 


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