Originally created 05/30/99

Baseball rethinks metal bats



His jaw was shattered like a pane of glass, but Ryan Mills somehow considers himself fortunate.

Three years ago, the former Arizona State pitcher was drilled in the face by a line drive. Many who witnessed the incident and who later watched the videotape realized he had escaped more than just a potential career-ending injury.

He escaped death.

Mills was the sixth overall pick of the Minnesota Twins in the June 1998 draft, and can now count his blessings knowing his big-league dreams are still very much alive.

When aluminum bats were first used in college baseball in 1974, the NCAA never imagined it would become a life-or-death issue. Nor could anyone have predicted the controversy it would bring a quarter-century later.

As more and more injuries have resulted from the ever-improving technology and as the balance between hitting and pitching in college baseball has become increasingly skewed, Bill Thurston has become consumed by the Great Bat Debate.

The longtime Amherst College coach, who also serves as the NCAA's Division I baseball rules editor, is one of the leading authorities on the impact of aluminum bats in the game.

For the past several years, Thurston has been on a personal crusade to limit the performance of aluminum bats as a means to protect players and restore the delicate harmony between pitchers and hitters.

"The game is out of balance," Thurston says. "Technology is affecting the integrity of the game, and it's been a matter of luck that somebody (in college baseball) hasn't been killed yet."

The switch to aluminum began as a way to save money. At a cost of around $35 apiece back in the mid 1970s, the first generation metal bats were designed to be a more durable, cost-effective alternative to wood.

Today, metal bats aren't as economical as they once were (top of the line models going for $300 and up). Much like titanium has revolutionized golf, the supercharged bats are causing as much of a stir as is the move to "Tiger Proof" courses on the PGA Tour.

Aluminum bats are lighter with a larger hitting area. The "sweet spot" on a wood bat is about 6-8 inches, compared to 10-12 on an aluminum bat.

What's more, studies estimate the average bat speed of a college player using aluminum at around 90 mph, with the average wooden-bat speed at around 80 mph. As a result, aluminum bats send balls 15 to 20 percent farther.

From Little League to high school to college, debates over the use of metal bats and the unfair advantage it provides hitters have been waged since the beginning.

But it wasn't the rash of injuries that first set the wheels in motion toward finding a way to limit bat technology.

Credit college baseball's premier event last May as the ignitor of this latest, most heated battle.

IN THE COLLEGE WORLD SERIES

championship game, Southern Cal defeated Arizona State 21-14. The 35 runs and 64 home runs belted in 14 CWS games are NCAA records.

Though hitting has clearly dominated pitching in the college game for the past 25 years, never before was there a greater disparity than in 1998.

For the first time in NCAA Division I history, 273 teams averaged more than one home run per game while posting a team earned run average over 6.00.

In 1973, the last year college baseball used wooden bats, the combined ERA of all Division I pitchers was 3.46.

In the wake of the explosion, the NCAA announced a plan in August to "preserve the integrity of the game" and protect pitchers from injury by placing limitations on aluminum bats.

By January, the NCAA Division I committee had adopted the new rule stating aluminum bats must be lighter and thinner, more similar to wooden bats, beginning with the 1999 NCAA playoffs which began this week.

The NCAA's decision sparked tension on two fronts, pitting the college coaches against the NCAA and the NCAA against the bat manufacturers.

Several of college baseball's winningest coaches are vehemently opposed to the switch.

"I don't see any reason for changing the rules," Louisiana State coach Skip Bertman told The Orange County Register. "The game is more popular now than it's ever been. So why change things?"

COACHES OPPOSED

to the changes consider the safety issue a smoke screen to hide what they believe to be the NCAA's true agenda: to prevent another display like the 1998 CWS.

Opponents to the changes point to the NCAA's own Injury Surveillance System, which found baseball to be the safest men's sport.

In 1998, a total of 289 baseball injuries were reported by 94 member schools. Twenty-seven injuries were the result of batted balls, while only eight pitchers were injured (none seriously) by batted balls.

Julius Riofrir, however, wasn't so lucky.

The 17-year-old high school pitcher from Glendale, Calif., was killed after a line drive struck him in the temple as he was warming up on the sidelines.

Though incidents such as the ones involving Riofrir and Mills are rare, the NCAA says one incident is enough to make changes.

"We weren't willing to wait until somebody was killed," says Ted Breidenthal of the NCAA Baseball Rules Committee.

But some coaches are quick to point out that even wooden bats can cause serious harm.

Last season, Baltimore Orioles pitcher Mike Mussina and Houston Astros pitcher Billy Wagner were drilled in the face by wood-bat generated line drives. Both escaped with only minor injuries.

"The NCAA is using that as a cover-up for trying to reduce home runs and scoring," Southern Cal coach Mike Gillespie told The Orange County Register. "When Mark McGwire hit all those home runs last year, it created great interest in major league baseball. But when college players hit home runs, people want to stop it."

Thurston begs to differ.

"The increase in injuries is our main concern," says Thurston, adding that two Japanese high school pitchers were killed by batted balls last summer.

WHEN DETERMINING

the effectiveness and potential harm aluminum bats can cause, the catch word these days is "exit speed", or the velocity a baseball comes off the barrel.

A recent study shows that a wooden bat swung at 70 mph at a pitch thrown at 70 mph generates an exit speed of 93 mph. Using the same speeds with an aluminum bat, the exit speed is 100 mph.

Thurston points to another study he conducted that determined a pitcher needs .4 seconds to react to a ball hit at him.

Using a wood bat with an exit speed of 93 mph, the study shows that a batted ball reached the pitcher in .4 seconds only 14 percent of the time. Using an aluminum bat, 52 percent reached the pitcher in .4 seconds.

Nevertheless, the bat manufacturers seem ready to go to war.

In August, Easton Sports -- the top producer of aluminum bats -- sued the NCAA to try to stop the changes. The suit, alleging illegal restraint of trade, is seeking $267 million in damages.

Later, Easton and Louisville Slugger -- companies which combine for nearly 50 percent of the college bat market -- won the widespread support of coaches and athletic directors after agreeing to indemnify schools for injuries caused by batted balls.

THE NCAA,

however, does have its allies.

The National Federation of State High School Associations is following the NCAA's lead. The organization is developing a standard to limit bat performance in high school baseball. The new standard will take effect Jan. 1.

The National Baseball Congress World Series, the premier collegiate summer event, has banned aluminum bats for the 2000 championship.

Currently, 11 of the 16 leagues that send teams to the NBC World Series use wooden bats.

A recent injury to Cal State Northridge senior relief pitcher Andrew Sanchez, who suffered a skull fracture caused by a line drive in a game against Southern Cal, has also validated the NCAA's decision.

Thurston isn't surprised to see many high profile coaches defending aluminum. In 1997, 140 Division I coaches were under contract with major bat companies.

"Some get free bats, some get free bats and $20,000 a year for using a certain bat, and some make upward of $50,000-80,000," Thurston says. "They have a lot to lose."

Stay tuned. The Great Bat Debate has just begun.

Rob Mueller covers minor league baseball for The Augusta Chronicle. He can be reached at (706) 823-3425 or robm99@hotmail.com.