21
May
10

a new twist on the metal bat thing…

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1 Response to “a new twist on the metal bat thing…”


  1. May 21, 2010 at 4:32 PM

    During a conversation with former University of Wisconsin and major league pitcher Paul Quantrill several years ago, the question was posed about what he would do if metal bats were ever approved at the professional level.

    “Retire,” Quantrill deadpanned before admitting he was serious.

    The familiar “ping” generated by a ball meeting a metal bat has always sat funny with traditionalists who favor wood, but also has created a level of anxiety among pitchers and infielders in the line of fire of the rocket shots metal bats can emit.

    And with the explosion of high-end models that push the limits of performance, metal bats have become associated with another sound — the “ka-ching” of a cash register.

    Introduced in the mid-1970s as a cheaper and more durable alternative to wood, metal bats soon became commonplace in youth leagues, high schools and colleges. However, they have also become increasingly potent. Commonly constructed of aluminum — which remains an oft-used term for metal bats of all varieties — some newer models are now constructed of advanced alloys that enclose pressurized air chambers.

    In addition to concerns over safety, there is an increasing debate over whether they really are cheaper, too.

    “It’s a little bit scary and I have to think it’s getting a little bit expensive,” Milwaukee Brewers general manager Doug Melvin said.

    “Schools talked about saving money. All these tournaments and leagues the kids play in cost money. Then when you add in the cost of aluminum bats, it’s starting to become costly to participate at competitive levels for high school kids ? especially the ones who are looking to be scouted or looking to be recruited for college.”

    The safety issue has percolated for the last few years, with the North Dakota state preps organization and New York City both banning the use of metal bats. It made the news again last week when the Associated Press reported a California legislative committee had advanced a bill to place a two-year moratorium on the use of metal bats in high school baseball there, a response to a March incident in which a teenager was severely injured in a game. There is no such movement afoot in Wisconsin. But among coaches at the high school level, upcoming restrictions on long, ultra-light bats advanced by the National Federation of State High School Associations have met with approval.

    And some wonder whether the game would be better off with a switch back to wood.

    That notion came to Tim O’Driscoll every summer, when he would take his Hartland Arrowhead team to the South Milwaukee Wood Bat tournament. The state’s all-time winningest coach — who retired abruptly last week due to unspecified health reasons after 35 seasons and 742 victories — said the tournament was an annual highlight.

    “It is really a great tournament,” O’Driscoll said. “We did it almost every single year. A lot of scouts come around because they get a chance to see players use wood bats.”

    Having served as an official scorer for the Milwaukee Brewers for 20 years, O’Driscoll has witnessed the differences between the way the game is played with different bats.

    “I don’t like aluminum bats. I think they are dangerous,” he said. “They also change kids’ perspective on what kind of a hitter they are.

    “I think in the old days — and I was a pitcher, so I may be a little prejudiced about this — when I used to jam a guy, what would happen? The bat would break. With aluminum, guys still get hits with them.”

    To Melvin, there is another more subtle, but equally disappointing fallout of the metal bat era.

    “The defense isn’t the same either,” he said. “With wood bats, the defensive players have to play on their toes. They get on their toes and move toward the ball. With the aluminum bat, a lot of guys defensively sort of sit back and wait on the ball because it shoots up so hard.

    “Defensive players are becoming rare, and I think that the aluminum bat has a lot to do with that.”

    However, even proponents note that an across-the-board return to wood bats would be an uphill climb, despite the initial cost savings. Todd Gundlach, president of Madison-based Badger Sporting Goods, said the average cost of a metal bat is $250 while a wood bat ? which is mainly sold to adult leagues ? runs from $40 for a basic ash model, to $125 or more for a rock maple version that comes with a 90-day warranty.

    Many coaches at the youth level believe that metal bats soften the learning curve to hitting, which makes it easier to interest kids in what they already regard as a “slow-paced” game. And once a player is trained to hit with metal bats, the transition to wood is difficult; one of the chief principles of the Northwoods League, of which the Madison Mallards are a member, is to teach college players how to adjust.

    Cumberland coach Mark Fuller, a longtime member of the Wisconsin Baseball Coaches Association Board of Directors, said there hasn’t been a push in Wisconsin to go back to wood bats, in part because of the changes already set in motion at the national level.

    “All of the bats being used now will be obsolete,” said Fuller, who is in his 31st year as head coach. “There will be a new bat ? and this is the second time this has happened in 10 years ? and the aluminum bats will have some pop taken out of them.”

    O’Driscoll welcomes the move, just as he did when the “Minus-3” restriction was put in place. That capped the difference between the length of the bat and the weight of the bat at 3 inches, eliminating the use of long, light bats that increased the speed of a player’s swing.

    “That really, really helped,” O’Driscoll said. “If you remember, some of these guys were swinging minus-9; minus-8 and they were almost like war clubs.”

    For now, traditionalists will have to settle for such incremental improvements.


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