Technology at the plate

Bats: Amid concerns about price and safety, softball players can get an edge with expensive alloys that help them hit the ball farther.

Howard At Play

July 11, 2004|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,SUN STAFF

Ever since maybe the second week after baseball was invented in the 1800s, players and equipment-makers have puttered and fussed with bats.

They've made what originally was a shaft of ash or another hardwood longer, fatter, shorter, more tapered, thinner at the handle, thicker in the middle. Bats have been polished, sanded, painted, flaked, hardened, hollowed out and chunked with cork - all in the name of gaining competitive edge, even if it meant breaking the rules.

Softball players and bat-makers haven't been far behind in tinkering, to the point where bats in that sport are a red-hot topic nationally and locally.

Today's best softball bats - for slow- and fast-pitch - are made of alloys and can cost more than $400 each.

"It used to be in the so-called church leagues that a team would go to a store with maybe $200 and buy four or five bats of different lengths for the season," said Dutch Detwiler, 57, of Ellicott City, a veteran softball player and salesman of baseball and softball gear.

"Now I've seen them pool their money and buy one bat for the whole team. They buy the one that will give the most productivity they can afford."

Mark Pendleton, supervisor of the Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks' adult softball leagues, said, "If you come with a bat that costs about $150 these days, it means you definitely have a low-end bat."

Controversy over bats isn't limited to price. Speed, distance and safety rank right up there.

That's because scientific testing proves two points: You can hit a ball faster and farther with a metal bat than with a wooden one. That's more the case with newer composite bats. Thus, technology has changed the game, turning some players who rarely got more than a single into home-run threats.

Detwiler, who slammed 145 homers last year while playing slow-pitch ball four nights a week, said of the newer bats: "They make a bad team good and a good team better. If you're going to be competitive, you have to have a $300 bat or you're at a real disadvantage."

Dave Harvis of Columbia,who manages a men's team and has played since the 1970s, said a typical beer-league team "probably has between $2,500 and $3,500 worth of bats on its bench."

The original metal bats were aluminum. First made in the 1960s, they were more durable and, in the long run, cheaper than wood. They quickly became the bat of choice in amateur baseball and softball. Ever since, metal has been the name of the bat game, except in professional ball.

Within the past decade, composite bats, blending metals such as aluminum and titanium with graphite and Kevlar, the chemical fiber that makes bulletproof vests stop bullets, have become the next level.

Marketers have kept pace. Louisville Slugger might sound romantic to longtime diamond lovers. Some of today's bat names - Wicked, Spring Steel, Catalyst, Freak Plus, Synergy Plus, Fiber Flex, Ultimate Weapon - seem mystifying.

In Howard County's men's leagues, players using the newer bats can overpower most diamonds owned by the county's Department of Recreation and Parks. Men's leagues carry what could be called home-run handicaps. Depending on the league and skill level, only the first five home runs by a team count in a game, or only the first two, or only one.

At new county parks, Western Regional in Glenwood, for example, softball outfield fences will be 300 feet from home plate, 25 feet farther than on older fields at Cedar Lane, Centennial and Rockburn Branch parks, Pendleton said.

"If we had the money," said Pendleton, "we'd raise the fences higher" in the older parks to keep more long balls in play.

The ball's speed off the newer bats raises safety concerns. Pitchers and infielders are nearer batters in softball than they are in baseball and are more vulnerable to balls hurling toward them. And a softball is not soft at all.

Thus, in recent years, the subject of banning bats has added fuel to the debate over what bats should be legal in organized play.

For softball, the county rec department bans all bats from Miken, a company well known for pushing the technological boundaries, and models blacklisted by two of the largest governing entities in U.S. softball. Those makers include Hillerich & Bradsby, maker of the famed Louisville Slugger models, Easton and Japanese force Mizuno.

Essentially, what's banned and what's not turns everyone in softball into fine-print readers.

The Amateur Softball Association, the primary governing body for U.S. softball, has banned 25 bat models from seven makers; five models were added July 1. It's hard to fathom how many are banned by the also influential U.S. Slow-Pitch Softball Association. Its Web site includes authorized models.

Ralph Eggen, head of ASA umpires for Howard County, said his 40-plus officials are told to keep a list of banned bats with their gear. Hardest for all, he said, are makers who use the same name for different bat models - Synergy, Synergy One, Synergy Plus, for example. Some models might be banned, some legal.

Eggen said policing bats hasn't caused major problems for umpires because better players know violators will be prohibited from tournament play.

But, said Harvis, "I can't recall a season in recent years when umpires didn't take at least one bat out of a game."

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