Wooden or aluminum? Weigh risks, advantages

ASK CAL

December 04, 2005|By CAL RIPKEN

Our league is debating whether to mandate the use of wooden bats instead of metal bats for all players 10-12 years old. The issues are safety, whether wooden bats will force the players to refine their techniques and hitting abilities, and the general changing of the character of youth play. Many feel that the wooden bat is safer to use. Others feel that a wooden bat is too heavy, and feel the kids can't generate enough bat speed to hit the ball. What do you think?

- Steve Masciotti, Ridgefield, Conn.

DEAR STEVE -- This is a real hot-button issue in youth sports. Safety is the underlying concern here. All sports have risks and in the case of the aluminum bat in baseball, there is an opinion circulating that the ball comes off the bat faster, therefore putting the fielder, especially the pitcher, at greater risk.

I believe the ball does come off the bat faster with an aluminum bat but let's not ban the use just yet. The ball comes off the bat faster for two reasons. One is that the aluminum bat is a stronger material and two, it is generally lighter so the hitter can generate greater bat speed. Until the kids can generate sufficient bat speed, I don't believe this possesses a big safety threat. The lighter aluminum bat is useful when teaching hitting because the younger kids can swing it more easily and the bat helps produce better results. At some point the combination of the bat speed and the aluminum bat does becomes more of a safety risk.

Aluminum bats have been used at the collegiate level for the last 20 years or so and there have been more and more incidents where pitchers just do not have enough time to react. Over the years an aluminum bat has occasionally made its way into our batting practice and it is an amazing tool to put in a big leaguer's hand. The ball explodes off the bat, prompting all pitchers to proclaim it has no place in baseball. It certainly does change the game. I'd like to see the wooden bat introduced to the 12-year-olds in preparation for use when they make the jump to the 90-foot diamond at 13. If your league is considering this move, I'd recommend that when the kids jump to the big field they use the bats that the big leaguers use.

I have been coaching baseball for 10 years and the hardest thing I encounter is convincing players of the importance of the little things of the game and consistency. Do you think the use of the radar gun and stopwatch overshadow the evaluation of what constitutes a player with the true total package?

- Frank Velleggia, Monkton

DEAR FRANK -- Baseball scouts like to use the term "five-tool player." This means that a guy can hit for average, hit for power, has speed, can field and has arm strength. These are good ways to measure a player's skills and overall athleticism, but I agree that by only gauging these "tools" you can miss some really smart, hard-nosed players in the process.

My brother Bill always points to St. Louis shortstop David Eckstein when we discuss those sorts of players. David is a little guy, not particularly fast, doesn't have the strongest of arms, hit for a pretty good average and has very little power. That being said, he has been a big part of a World Series champion in Anaheim and arguably the best team during the regular season this year in the Cardinals.

The easiest thing in the world to do is just pick out the physical specimens because there is safety in that sort of selection or signing. It takes a real evaluator of talent to see something in the David Eckstein-type player and take that sort of chance. The radar gun and the stopwatch can be wonderful tools for teaching and evaluation but in my opinion play a very small part in judging the true baseball player.

My nephew will soon be moving from a 60-foot to a 90-foot basepath. It seems to me that this is the time when a large percentage of kids quit playing baseball. I believe this may be more from the frustration of the longer throws than from any lack of ability or interest. Do you think if the youth leagues would start using a 75-foot basepath for 13- and 14-year-olds, more kids would keep playing baseball longer?

- Kent Stewart, Aberdeen

DEAR KENT -- Yes! The jump from 60 feet to 90 feet is a huge jump and can be daunting for many kids. It was monumental for me. I had to switch from shortstop to second base because I couldn't make the long throw from shortstop. More and more leagues are starting to use the 70-foot basepaths for the 11- and 12-year-olds. I'd like to see an 80-foot diamond for the 13- and 14-year-old age group. Whether the jump is 60 to 75 to 90 or 60 to 70 to 80 to 90, I think it is a great idea to bridge the jump from the small field to the major league-size field.

From a design perspective, there are a few challenges with the additional field sizes. Most local recreation councils have fields built for 60s and 90s, and it could be costly to build all new 75-foot diamonds. We have found that the 60s can be easily modified to the 70 and the 90s to the 80-foot diamond without losing the integrity of the field. I'll have our guys at Ripken Baseball include a more detailed explanation in our coaches' clipboard e-newsletter. You can get that through our Web site, RipkenBaseball.com.

And, yes, Kent I do believe we will be able to retain more kids by matching the field size to their skill level.

Have a question or issue arising from your involvement in youth sports? Send it by e-mail to askcal@baltimoresun.com.

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