Price of Power (aired May 5, 2005)

May 4, 2005 10:00:00 PM PDT
There's no arguing that metal bats in amateur baseball have changed the game. But at what cost? Two recent injuries have brought renewed attention on the metal versus wood debate.America's national pastime can be broken down into two camps. There's the amateur level -- the vast majority of youth leagues to college programs use metal bats. And, there are the pros -- from the minor leagues to the majors, they still use wood. What baseball also has is an endless debate about whether using metal or wood changes more than just the sound.

The crack -- the sound of wood meeting cowhide -- is a sound traditionalists love. The ping of metal hitting the ball still makes some coaches cringe.

"I just think that the metal bats have obviously increased the danger for the players," said Coach Ed Mathey, Northern Illinois University baseball.

Northern Illinois University baseball coach Ed Mathey should know. In March, a line-drive from a metal bat hit pitcher Mark Badgley in the temple -- fracturing his skull and ending his season.

"I could have been dead now. It kind of freaks me out just thinking about that," said Badgley.

"I'm as scared as the moment I saw it...it just turns my stomach," said Coach Mathey.

After this, the coach and pitcher agree -- it's time to switch back to wood.

"Oh, I think we should get rid of aluminum bats. I never really thought about it before," said Badgley.

Teams are thinking about it in Oak Lawn these days as well, where the beginning of baseball season brings a parade....and a moment of silence. Last month, a ball hit Oak Lawn High School sophomore Bill Kalant in the head. He has been in a drug-induced coma for weeks. His condition is slowly improving.

"The way the bats are designed...they're designed for power and designed to get people hurt," said Jeffrey Haak, Oak Lawn T-Ball manager.

First introduced in 1974, aluminum bats are now the standard from little league to fast pitch girls softball and at the college level.

At first, with the way wood bats break, there was a tremendous cost savings. But that argument's out the window now that these hi-tech bats can easily run 200 to 400 dollars a piece.

That has more people taking a second look at the safety factor. Wilmette's Bronco League put it to the test. This year and last year, 11 and 12-year-olds played with wood only for two weeks. One thing changed -- hits were down. Jesse O'Connor was the only kid to hit it out of the park with wood.

"And I saw it went out and I jumped up in the air...didn't need to walk really, I just floated around the bases," said Jesse O'Connor, Wilmette Bronco League.

"With a wooden bat you need more actual muscle power, and so the ball leaves the bat slower and the dynamics of the game change," said Sid Tepps, Wilmette Baseball Association.

Cory Franklin is a coach and intensive care doctor at Stroger Hospital. He says studies show that with a metal bat, the exit speed is ten-percent faster than wood.

"Ten percent means your reaction times are less," said Cory Franklin, Intensive Care physician, "and momentum of the ball striking something is higher so it's logical that you're going to have a greater potential for injury."

The wood versus metal debate has intensified in recent years. And it brings us here to Indianapolis where right now, American Legion Baseball is deciding what's best for its 100-thousand young ball players across America.

The issue came up for a vote here after a pitcher in Montana, 18-year-old Brandon Patch, was killed two years ago. It pits the number one maker of metal bats, Easton sports against Hoosier Bat Company, maker of wooden bats in Valparaiso.

"These aluminum companies, they don't care...they keep making the same bats and they throw safety out the window for bottom line profit," said Dave Cook, Hoosier Bat Company.

"Metal bats today, you know the certification process states that they cannot outhit the best northern white ash wood. So if you're saying make aluminum bats safer, then you're going to have to make wood bats safer, too," said Jim Darby, Easton Sports company.

That's where it gets tricky. When the NCAA first approved metal bats 30-years ago, they were largely unregulated. Home runs and hits went through the roof as technology improved.

In 1998, the NCAA set standards, intending to make metal bats perform more like wood. Batting averages have settled down. But critics say metal bats still have a much larger sweet spot than wood...making it easier to hit harder.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission has studied the matter. It found from 1991 to 2001, there were 17 deaths due to impact with a batted ball. Of those, 8 involved metal bats. Two were from wood. The rest -- unknown.

The CPSC decided against stiffer regulations because overall, baseball injuries have gone down in recent years.

But longtime followers of the game, like Loyal Park, a hall of fame college coach who teaches in Northfield today, say there's an obvious reason metal hasn't invaded the pros -- and that's safety.

"It'll never happen in pro ball....they can't because the ball will get to the pitcher's mound with such velocity it would be death alley really," said Park.

Everyone seems to agree metal will never appear in the pros. But six college conferences have switched back to wood only in the last few years. That is, however, only six out of the hundreds that still use metal.

That vote by the American Legion was taken this week. In the end, they decided to leave things the way they are and continue using metal.

There have been similar changes in tennis rackets and golf clubs and many people said those sports would never go back now -- and neither will baseball.


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