NCAA steps up to the plate, looks to take zing from ping

Restrictions proposed on design of metal bats

July 15, 1999|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The scent of freshly milled lumber fills the air for blocks around Hillerich & Bradsby Co., home of the legendary Louisville Slugger.

The squat, red-brick building, the distance from the Ohio River of a sharply hit fly ball, has windows around two sides where passers-by stop to watch as bats are cut and shaped. Propped in view: sticks with routing labels for such big-league customers as Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn.

Here one would expect to find the purists longing for a return to the days when the crack of a bat meant cowhide slapping white ash, not aluminum alloy.

Not so.

Hillerich & Bradsby, the world's most famous maker of aluminum and wooden bats, is in fact upset that the people who run college sports are about to demand metal bats that act more like wood. The NCAA won't outlaw metal bats, as some have suggested, but is likely to ask manufacturers to restrict their performance so metal bats can't knock the ball any faster than their oaken counterparts.

In other words, college ball is going back on the wood standard.

"From a personal standpoint, I was very disappointed," said George Manning, vice president of technical services.

Safer, traditional game

Despite the best efforts of his company and other purveyors of ping, the NCAA is poised to impose the new bat restrictions next month, to take effect next year.

The result, say proponents, will be a college game that is safer and more akin to the traditional game.

Jeff Albies, head coach for William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J., led a drive that resulted in the 10-team, Division III New Jersey Athletic Conference's switching to wood last season.

Fewer games were won by home runs and more by infielder finesse and skillful pitching. "It was an overall better game," Albies said.

Proponents of metal bats aren't so sure. They argue that the college game will suffer a loss of fan interest if the offense is cooled off. And some colleges may even drop the sport if the cost of replacing breakable wooden bats exceeds the expense of supplying longer-lasting metal ones.

"I think the manufacturers and rules bodies have to look out for what's best for the game," Manning said. "Higher offense makes better games. The college game has never been more popular."

Metal bats account for half of Hillerich & Bradsby's sales. But there is more money to be made on metal bats that sell for as much as $250 than on wooden ones at $25, especially if each year's model renders others obsolete.

The company views wooden bats, many of which it gives away to major-leaguers, largely as a promotional expense, Manning said.

The controversy in college ball has been building since the NCAA first allowed aluminum in 1974. An offensive explosion ensued. Division I schools went from hitting an average of one home run every four games in 1973 to hitting more than one a game last year. Their aggregate batting average has soared from .266 to .306.

The reason hitters get the most out of metal has to do with a blend of elementary physics and sophisticated technology. Hollow, lightweight metal bats can be swung faster, and their stiffer handles and springy walls pack more punch than wood.

A modern metal bat bears about as close a resemblance to Babe Ruth's stick as a Formula One race car does to a balloon-tired Schwinn. Louisville Slugger's top of the line "Air Attack 2" has walls that are one-sixteenth of an inch thick and is made of an alloy containing 11 elements, including aluminum, iron, titanium and zirconium. The barrel is filled with a bag of nitrogen pressurized to 30 pounds per square inch.

The ball flies off a metal bat up to 6 percent faster than off wood.

The difference seems trivial. But even a minor enhancement matters in the violent confines of the batter's box, where balls and bats collide with an impact equal to 200 mph. An ounce here or there can convert an inning-ending long fly ball into a game-winning home run.

High-performing metal bats have raised concerns about the safety of pitchers. Balls have been clocked in college games streaking off the bats at 113 mph.

At those speeds, a pitcher has about a third of a second to get his glove up in time to stop the ball. But the average reaction time of a college pitcher is slower, about four-tenths of a second, which permits a ball speed of no more than 93 mph, according to Randall W. Dick, the NCAA's senior assistant director of sports sciences. That is roughly the speed that balls come off wood bats in normal use.

Compared with other sports the NCAA monitors, baseball is among the safest 25 percent in terms of frequency of injury, Dick said. But the organization has grown concerned as makers find new ways to juice their bats.

A survey of Division I schools estimated that pitchers were hit by batted balls 375 times in 1998. Most of the injuries were minor, but required medical treatment in about one out of 10 cases.

Changing the rules

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