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Are metal bats too risky?

It’s up the state Senate to determine if high school baseball will make a switch to wood

Posted: May 8, 2010 9:42 p.m.
Updated: May 9, 2010 4:55 a.m.

Valencia junior Alex Bishop makes contact on Friday during the Vikings' win over Saugus at Valencia High School. If AB7, a bill which was advanced by the Senate Education Committee with a 5-1 vote Wednesday, is signed into a law, a two-year moratorium will be placed on metal bats like Bishops'.

 
It could be a matter of weeks before California's state Senate decides whether a two-year moratorium will be placed on the use of metal bats in high school baseball.

And if the bill passes and is signed into law by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the California Interscholastic Federation will have no choice but to implement the change.

The Foothill League's coaches have varying opinions, though they all agree that measures need to be taken to improve safety in high school baseball.

On Wednesday, the Senate Education Committee, by a vote of 5-1, supported the bill, known as AB7.

Although all the league's coaches weighed in on the matter, Valencia High head coach Jared Snyder was the most passionate.

"It's unfortunate," Snyder said regarding the bill, adding he's is frustrated that the state government is using its time to focus on baseball bats as opposed to education.

Snyder said the reason he is upset is because if the bill becomes law, it will end up costing already cash-strapped parents in the long run.

Wood bats can cost upward of $80, while aluminum bats will go all the way up to $400.

Yet wood bats break frequently, and there is also a safety concern with them because they can shatter and cause serious injuries because of the speed at which they can fly and the sharp edges they have when they break.

State Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, acknowledged that wood bats have their own safety issues, but said the rate of speed at which balls fly off wooden bats is far less than that of metal bats.

He introduced the bill as a reaction to an incident in which Marin Catholic High School pitcher Gunnar Sandberg was severely injured after being struck in the head by a line drive on March 11.

Sandberg was placed in a medically induced coma and was reportedly being released this week from a rehabilitation center.

"I am convinced that baseball's a safe sport and people shouldn't worry about playing baseball," Huffman told The Signal. "Can we honor the sport and at same time make it safer for pitchers? I think the answer is yes."

But Huffman has his critics who bring up the cost of going through wooden bats and say this might be a knee-jerk reaction to an isolated incident. There are those who say that a ball coming off an aluminum bat is not much faster than a ball coming off a wooden bat.

Mike May, who is the spokesman for the Florida-based "Don't Take My Bat Away Coalition," which is against those who are trying to push aluminum bats out of the game, pointed to a 2008 Kettering University study that found the arrival times at the pitcher's mound between a ball hit by a wooden bat and a ball hit by a "high-performance NCAA-approved metal bat is only one-fifth of the time required to blink an eye."

Huffman said those who cite such examples are using scare tactics.

"That's complete nonsense and it's not supported by any data," he said of those who say balls off a wood bat are near the same speed as those hit off a metal bat. "This is someone throwing numbers around like Rice Krispies. ... My staff and I have been pouring through studies on this. Every study shows some velocity increase. Depending on the study, that could range from 3 miles per hour to 20 miles per hour or more. Every study shows there's a speed increase."

Huffman said he respects coaches' opinions, but his research has led him to believe that something has to be done quickly about metal bats.

The Foothill League's coaches overwhelmingly agree that safety is an issue.

One player was struck twice in the same inning by a line drive earlier this year during a Foothill League game at Valencia High, but it was below his waist and he reacted quickly.

Locally, there has only been one serious incident involving a line drive against a pitcher.

In June 2004, Valencia High pitcher Gary Cox was struck by a line drive in the face.

Cox spent four days in the hospital and had surgery that placed four plates into his face.

He made a full recovery and became a major contributor on the Valencia High football defense that fall.

Yet wood bats have had their own accidents over the years.

Former Major Leaguer Mike Coolbaugh died in July 2007 after being struck by a ball off a wood bat while coaching in the first-base box during a minor league game.

Prior to the 2010 Major League Baseball season, new regulations were put in place on wooden bats.

Restrictions were placed on the density of sugar maple bats, and several types of maple bats are to be completely eliminated by the 30-plus companies approved to make bats for minor league teams. Maple bats have been more prone to multiple breaks.

Last August, the NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel banned the use of composite-material bats from NCAA competition because the Ball Exit Speed Ratio is higher in composites than aluminum bats.

Hart High head coach Jim Ozella, who is against AB7, said high school baseball should jump on board with NCAA regulations and also adopt BBCOR (Ball-Bat Coefficient Of Restitution) as a measure of performance for bat makers rather than "BESR" because it is said to be a more direct measure of bat performance. BESR is the ratio of the ball exit speed to the combined speeds of the pitched ball and swung bat.

Saugus High head coach John Maggiora suggested the weight of the bat should equal or come closer to the length of the bat - for example, a 32-inch bat should also be 32 ounces rather than the current minus-3 ratio - because he said bat speed is the real issue.

Some of the most passionate comments on the issue come from people with dogs in the fight.

The Sandberg incident occurred in the district Huffman represents.

May said Little League Baseball and PONY Baseball and Softball have both lent their support to his coalition. But both of those organizations list aluminum bat manufacturers as partners. May is also the director of communications for the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association.

"We just don't want people on the outside telling us what to use," May said. "We're pro-wood, we're pro-nonwood."

Snyder said he has tested products for Easton as well, but insists that a change to wood bats will put more pressure on parents and schools to raise money.

Marie Ishida, executive director of the CIF, said the organization listened to a presentation by Huffman earlier this week.

She said he had a lot of good data, but she is not sure it's the right data from which to base an opinion.

"Although he cites some data, it doesn't necessarily support his position," she said.

She raised the question as to who would be responsible for the costs and what type of wood would be used.

Ishida added that if the CIF felt the issue was an immediate safety concern, it would act, not react.

The CIF, she said, has not taken a stand on the issue yet and that it's in a "watch position."

"We could certainly weigh in with our input," Ishida said. "We have to determine what that is right now."


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