For Mark Thornhill, there's something rather unsettling about hearing the ping of aluminum. Were it up to him, he would replace it with the crack of wood. Now.
Call him a purist if you like, but Thornhill thinks scores of 21-14 and 28-24 are better suited for the gridiron than they are for the baseball diamond.
"I like to hit home runs as much as the next guy," said Thornhill, a former baseball star at Evans and Greenbrier who recently completed his sophomore year at Georgia. "But, at the same time, the scores were just getting ridiculous. Somebody needed to do something about it."
Thornhill was referring to the 1998 season, when, for the first time, 273 Division I teams averaged more than one home run per game and allowed an average of more than six earned runs per game. Southern California's 21-14 shootout win over Arizona State in the national championship prompted the NCAA to lay down the law: a reduction in barrel weight and width that effectively made bats heavier and limited the "sweet spot," the area of the bat that produces the most power.
Detractors believe the rule was wrought to punish hitters. Supporters say it was a necessary change, that the college game has devolved into nothing more than glorified softball.
Clemson coach Jack Leggett sides with the latter.
"It's a step in the right direction," said Leggett, whose Tigers are in the midst of the NCAA Tournament. "The ball was getting a little too lively, so I think the change was a positive thing."
The NCAA required Division I schools to use the new bats by the postseason, but several conferences, including the Atlantic Coast and Southeastern, used the measure for conference play.
"I really don't think there was much of a difference," said Thornhill, whose Bulldogs were one of the top hitting teams in the SEC during the 1999 season. "The biggest thing for me was getting used to the size of the barrel. That was the only thing that threw me off at first. Once I started practicing it, I got used to it."
Thornhill said the Diamond Dogs were split on the issue across lines that might have been forecast -- hitters hate it; pitchers love it.
In the ACC, Leggett said, most players and coaches were in favor of the changes.
Invariably, safety issues arise concerning such a matter. Injuries, the NCAA said, were prevented with the reduction in power. Thornhill agrees.
"There weren't as many hard-hit balls to me as last year," said Thornhill, who ranked first among SEC third basemen in fielding percentage. "In the past, there were line drives hit right at me."
Last summer, Thornhill played in a league in New England that used wooden bats. He competed in 15 to 20 games before a bout with tendinitis abbreviated his stay, but he said he easily discerned a contrast with the limited power that came with wood.
"It was a big difference," he said. "The balls hit to third base were a lot different, and I just loved the way the ball sounded when it was bouncing off the wood."
Some believe a return to wood -- the NCAA switched to aluminum in 1974 -- is imminent. A more likely solution is a composite bat that bears most characteristics of wood.
Georgia Tech coach Danny Hall, who saw decreased run production in the ACC from 1998 to 1999, likes things the way they were with the previous aluminum standards.
"I think whether it's pro ball or college, home runs are exciting and people like to see offense," Hall recently told The Raleigh News and Observer. "But I still think good pitching shuts down good hitters no matter what they have in their hands. I still think right now our game is a better game with aluminum."
Thornhill isn't as convinced, and he cites a particular instance during his freshman year as his reason.
"It was my first SEC game," Thornhill said. "We were playing at LSU, and a guy hit three home runs in one game -- and they were all off the end of his bat. That's ridiculous. You want to keep the game as consistent as you can."
Larry Williams covers college sports for The Augusta Chronicle. He can be reached at (706)-823-3645 or email@example.com
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