Originally created 05/30/99

Controversy reaches prep level



Jimmie Lewis has been around high school baseball for 23 seasons, 21 of them as head coach at Harlem. He's seen the transformation from wooden bats to aluminum bats on the high school level.

As much as Lewis liked the wooden bats during his high school and college career, there's something about the dinging sound of a new baseball coming off an aluminum bat that gets Lewis' blood pumping.

Lewis said that distinct sound is what makes high school baseball so exciting for spectators, coaches and players.

But over the last few years, aluminum bats have come under fire for safety reasons. Aluminum batmakers such as Easton, TPX, Louisville Slugger and Worth have made offenses more effective with lighter bats and bigger barrels.

In the early 1970s, wooden bats were becoming very costly and recreation departments around the country began looking for alternative methods. They experimented with aluminum bats and found the transition to be cheaper and also increased the game's popularity.

Gradually, the aluminum bat migrated to the high school and college level.

The National Federation of State High School Associations is meeting later this summer in Kansas City to discuss the aluminum bats controversy. They have already announced their intentions of setting a standard that will limit bat performance on the high school level. The new standard will begin on Jan. 1, 2000.

Many high school coaches and observers believe the NFSHSA will formulate a new rule in high school baseball similar to the rule the NCAA instituted in college games this year.

The NCAA reduced the barrel weight and the width, making the aluminum bats heavier and reducing the sweet spot.

Lewis has mixed feelings about the aluminum bat. During his senior year at Augusta College, Lewis said after playing with a wooden bat all of his life, he used an aluminum bat for the first time and it resulted in three pop flies. He said he quickly went back to his wooden bat.

"I don't think the aluminum bat is that much of a threat on the high school level," Lewis said. "Yeah, it (aluminum bat) is dangerous, but if you calculate the number of injuries in the United States where a pitcher is seriously hurt, I don't think it would be no more than one percent.

"I mean there's always a chance and I don't want somebody killed. I never want that to happen."

According to Brad Rumble, assistant director of the NFSHSA rules publications, the organization isn't trying to outlaw non-wooden bats.

"The bats need to be conformed more readily to wood-like performances," Rumble said. "It's not always the guy who hits all the homers that is the best baseball player. By minimizing the risk, it puts more emphasis on defense."

Georgia High School Executive Director Tommy Guillebeau has no problem with aluminum bats since it's a proven fact aluminum bats last longer and are cheaper than wooden bats. But he would like to see some changes in the bats.

"They're trying to regulate how fast the ball comes off the bat," Guillebeau said. "I think they need to control it. The baseball has been controlled and I think they need to find some way to control the bat. If they can regulate the bat, that's the only thing we need for safety. I'd like to see it go to that."

A recent study conducted on exit speed, the velocity a baseball comes off a barrel, is almost four times faster off an aluminum bat than a wooden bat.

Lewis says there are pros and cons about the issue, but believes the aluminum bat gives smaller athletes a better chance of competing.

"You take guys on my team like Jeff Moore and my son Randy Lewis, the little guys like them have been taken out of sports," he said. "The little guys can't play football or basketball, but the aluminum bat gives them a chance to play with the big boys in baseball."

It has been speculated that aluminum bats' days are numbered, but that isn't likely to happen, according to Rumble.

"I don't sense that is likely to happen," Rumble said. "Non-wood bats have a place, but only if they perform like wooden bats."

Tim Morse covers Georgia high school sports for The Augusta Chronicle. He can be reached At (706) 823-3216.