Little League hit by bat debate

Little League hit by bat debate

SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. -- The strains of baseballs chiming off metal bats have become the new tradition at the Little League World Series.

Yet that distinguishing ping off the oversized sweet spot of a non-wood bat isn't so sweet to all.

"The way [balls] comes off these metal bats, it's scary sometimes," Chandler, Ariz., coach Clay Bellinger said Wednesday.

And it's a perception that has Little League worried -- and on the defensive -- after three state legislatures recently introduced bills calling for a ban of metal bats. In fact, a similar bill passed by the New York City Council is set to take effect later next week.

Little League this week claimed these are reckless reactions in response to anecdotal evidence of rare tragedies and that metal bats are statistically no more dangerous than wood.

"If this was an issue of safety, we would be at the head of the class leading the way for changes," Little League president Stephen Keener said.

Not only does the league feel interest in baseball among youths would drop significantly were wood bats required, but such moves could endanger the Little League World Series' future at its historic Williamsport facility.

In Pennsylvania, a bill was introduced last month that would require the use of only wood bats by children under 18.

"I would think a ban in the use of non-wood bats in Pennsylvania would make it difficult to play the World Series here," Keener said.

And that means what?

"Not meaning anything," Keener said. "Just it would make it difficult."

Shifting this transcendent event would be tremendously unlikely. What most concerns Keener is the possibility of a new generation turning its back on the game.

Wood bats are more difficult to handle than metal bats (wood has unequal weight distribution), they have a smaller "sweet spot" and, of course, wood often breaks.

Keener said it all adds up to less hits, less action in the field and a less enjoyable experience for kids. He pointed to a number of local leagues which instituted a wood bat policy before quickly reversing course.

"Kids just weren't having fun," Keener said, "and it wasn't the game they wanted to play."

Little League's even getting a little support from an unlikely source, Ari Fleischer. The former White House press secretary under President George W. Bush was in town this week as a spokesman for the "Don't Take My Bat Away Coalition," a group largely comprised of concerned coaches and parents in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, the three states proposing bans on metal bats.

"What really gets me, as somebody who spent a lifetime working with politicians, is when politicians substitute their judgment, their traditions for those of the coaches, the leagues, the people who know the game best, love the game the most and protect the kids the most," Fleischer said. "If the politicians want to drive our children to lacrosse or to soccer or to video games, taking the fun out of the game is the best way to do it."

He certainly knows what it's like to have the fun taken of the game. Fleischer said he thrived while playing in an adult hardball league that used metal bats during his time in Washington. But since moving to New York and joining a league that requires wood bats, Fleischer said it's taken most of the fun out of his favorite game.

He shattered his wood bat the first time he stepped into a batting cage and said his average dropped by about 100 points. The good thing, Fleischer said, is his family gets to see him sooner because the games end faster.

"But I'd rather get some more hits and get home 15 minutes later," he said with a laugh. "My aluminum bat in D.C., I loved that bat. It had a lot of hits in it."

The metal-wood debate has existed for the better part of the last three decades since metal bats were introduced in the early 1970s as a more economical option. Yet as actions by state legislatures have increased, Little League contends the issue is less relevant than ever today.

Injuries to pitchers, the field's most vulnerable players, are down dramatically in Little League from 145 in 1992 to 26 in 2004. Little League has worked with bat manufacturers to ensure that balls exit metal bats no faster than they would off wood, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission concluded in a 2002 study that there was no data to indicate that metal bats were more dangerous than wood.

Eight players have died from batted balls in Little League history, but six of those came from balls off wood bats. The two that came off metal bats occurred in 1971 and 1973, long before standards were introduced to regulate a bat's performance.

So why the fuss?

Keener and Fleischer believe it's simply a response to the rare accident, incidents they believe would also happen with wood bats.

"This issue is fueled by anecdote, by emotion and by tragedy," Fleischer said.

Said Keener: "Somebody wants to blame something."

Keener will be blaming somebody, too, if kids begin leaving a game because it's no fun anymore.

"We're interested in as many kids playing the great game of baseball as possible. We believe if they were required to use the wood bats, which are a little harder to swing, a little harder to handle, they would have a much more difficult time performing," Keener said. "We just don't want to see kids walk away. ... An unnecessary legislative mandate will do nothing but keep kids from wanting to play the game."

David Briggs is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.