This Week's Attitude
By Neil S. Friedman
Spring has sprung. The last blast of winter - if Mother Nature cooperates - should be behind us. Although it may be a bit premature for cherry blossoms and other April flowers to bloom, and too chilly to spot the season's first robin, spring, according to the calendar, is, nevertheless, here.
With the first pitch of the 2007 baseball season scheduled for Sunday night - when the N.Y. Mets face the St. Louis Cardinals - America's favorite national pastime begins another cycle with cracks of bats once again echoing inside ballparks and stadiums from coast to coast.
Little leagues, colleges and high schools nationwide continue to use what baseball purists deem out-of-place - metal bats, which pinch hit dull, hollow pings for traditional cracks.
Consequently, the debate over the safety of metal bats lingers was recently voted on by the New York City Council. It may not be as controversial as which local baseball team - the Yankees, Dodgers or Giants - was better 50 years ago. Nor does it rival the dispute about whether or not current major leaguers suspected of taking performance enhancing substances should be asterisked in record books or deserve to be considered for the Cooperstown Hall of Fame. Nevertheless, the bat controversy strikes out in the hearts of sticklers who love the game.
Metal or aluminum bats - like crying - don't belong in baseball! The distinctive metallic sound is unnatural and unmatched to when a baseball hits the sweet spot of a Louisville Slugger. By the way, neither do artificial surfaces, but that's an obligatory concession to allow the sport to be played indoors in regions where the weather isn't always suitable for the boys of summer.
A few weeks ago, the New York City Council approved a ban on metal baseball bats in public school high school games. (The mayor, however, opposes the ban and is expected to veto it, but the 40-6 Council vote is enough to override it, making it operative during the next school year.) The logic behind the ban, with imprecise evidence, is that the ball comes off an aluminum bat faster than when a wood bat is used. Most of all, safety, especially when amateurs are involved, should be the prevailing factor.
Four years ago an 18-year-old American Legion player in Montana was killed when a ball hit with an aluminum bat struck him in the temple. More recently, a 12-year-old New Jersey boy went into cardiac arrest then remained in a coma for months, after he was hit in the chest with a baseball struck by a metal bat.
Those concerned about the additional costs of restocking high school teams with wood bats may be surprised to know that experts, who testified at the City Council hearings, said that metal bats, as many presumed, do not retain their effectiveness for too long, while the potency of wood bats virtually remains unchanged - if they remain undamaged. Therefore, while public high schools will have to discard their supplies of metal bats - whether they're recycled, donated to local little leagues or scrapped - the long-term cost of the wood bats, even with damage, should balance out.
Metal bats have been the subject of sporadic debate since they were introduced in college baseball games 33 years ago as an economic alternative to standard bats traditionally made from ash, which crack or break. When introduced, metal bats, which tend to boost offensive numbers, were thought to be nearly indestructible with regular use and would rarely need to be replaced, in addition to generating more offense while causing a surge in pitching statistics. It seems aluminum bats initially did last longer and had to be replaced less frequently than more fragile wood bats, which saved money for amateur baseball programs.
Undoubtedly, profit-minded sporting goods manufacturers almost certainly realized after saturating the market that future sales would dwindle with their practically "invincible" product and apparently came up with revised formulas that now require replacing metal bats more often than originally thought.
Furthermore, metal bat opponents claim, with scientific evidence that balls hit with aluminum bats travel an average of 20 miles an hour faster than with wooden bats. They also lack a wooden bat's unique "sweet spot," so the ball comes off a metal bat faster, due to its wider center of gravity, regardless if it's hit near the end of the bat or closer to the handle. Therefore, some experts conclude that metal bats pose additional risks to pitchers, who may be intimidated since they are a mere 60 feet from the batter's box, and unseasoned infielders, whose reflexes might not be finely tuned.
Metal bat manufacturers have claimed that injuries from batted balls have declined over the years and maintain that it has yet to be positively determined that aluminum bats pose more of a risk than wood.
Metal bat challengers, nonetheless, hastily dismiss the results, equating the information with Big Tobacco claiming that nicotine is only slightly addictive.
Indeed, despite what metal bat proponents claim, many high school and college coaches and umpires insist they have witnessed numerous injuries - serious and minor - when metal bats are used.
Incidentally, a 1985 Webster's dictionary defines "bat" as a piece of wood used in driving the ball in baseball, but a recent edition of the American Heritage Dictionary defines it as a round, tapered, usually wooden club used to hit the ball in baseball. Guess "usually" must have been added in the last two decades with the expanded use of aluminum bats.
Take me out to the ball game to hear vendors hawking peanuts and Cracker Jacks and bellowing, "Get ya cold beah heah," or the umpire's cry of "Play Ball," at Yankee Stadium or some other major league ballpark. But, oh how I dread the incompatible pinging sound during the college or Little League World Series when a metal bat strikes a baseball!