Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Amateur Baseball Playing Chicken?

An article in the New York Sun came out this week profiling Ari Fleischer, once President Bush's press secretary, and his new clients -- Don't Take My Bat Away (DTMBA). The article, entitled "Ex-Whitehouse Spokesman New Voice for Metal Bats," informs us that Fleischer sat on the bench on his high school team, plays adult level baseball, and went from hitting .300 in his old Virginia metal bat league to .200 for his new wood bat league team in West Chester County, New York.

Obviously, Mr. Fleischer needs to have someone like Mike Epstein help him with his mechanics -- or, possibly, he isn't doing enough Tee work.

I also learned of a second news story yesterday. Apparently, Little League International has decided to flex a little muscle. They have essentially threatened the state of Pennsylvania (a bill was introduced this summer by PA state representative Mike Carroll banning non-wood bats by players under the age of 18) with the notion that they would have to move the Little League World Series to a state that hasn't banned metal bats. I say "threatened" here because it's not clear to me what else Stephen Keener, the president of Little League, is doing when he makes a public statement like: "A metal bat ban would make it very difficult to play the World Series here." According to the newspaper account, he declined to elaborate on what he meant.

It continues to baffle me that essentially every major baseball association in North America is protecting the right to play with metal. Over the years this issue has come up again and again in these association's rules committees and year after year the associations steer clear of doing much to acknowledge that playing with wood might not be such a bad thing -- especially for senior level players from 13 and up.

What would really be nice to see happen is that college baseball and American Legion take the bull by the horns and say: "You know what? We've got no leg to stand on here. We made a mistake. There's absolutely no reason that these boys, everyone of whom has a dream of someday being a major leaguer, shouldn't go back to wood. Some of them may be upset, but you know, they're good at being upset. They get upset with umpires all the time. They can handle it. Let's go back to wood for awhile. Let's give it five years. We'll just play with wood for five years and see how we feel after that."

It would be nice if high school and Little League programs followed suit as well. Pretty much every hitting instructor worth his beans will tell you that kids don't learn to hit properly when they use metal.

Polling parents and coaches would be a good idea too. I have suggested to Mr. Keener that Little League International do some serious, hardcore opinion research and focus group studies. What if they found that parents didn't like the idea of their kids pitching to $389 bats designed to maximize performance? What if the majority of coaches said that they'd rather teach kids to play the game the way it's supposed to be played?

The point is that this whole issue is turning into a Mexican standoff -- or maybe a game of chicken. The safety issue is not as simple as these associations make it out to be. Data is very scarce, engineering tests are limited, and there is no question that metal bats let kids hit balls harder and farther. That's why Ari Fleischer's batting average has dropped. The information we have is mushy at best, and yet we go to games and we can see the difference. We have a conundrum here. This is why elected officials feel the need to step in.

Those of us who passionately believe that wood bats are the only way to play baseball are being called "traditionalists" and "purists." But that's not all we are. We love this game because it's so darned hard to play. We don't like to see cheap home runs and bloop singles that should be foul balls or outs. And we certainly don't like the idea that pitchers and charging third basemen are risking their lives just so the game can be "more fun."

So I call on the baseball associations to open their minds and recognize that this great game is bigger than they are and more important than anyone's pride or sense that they know better than their members, coaches, and players. We should all be troubled by this face off. Let's hope as the season draws to a close, cooler heads prevail and the baseball world remembers no matter how much things change, North America's pastime has always been based on tradition, common sense, and a passion for playing the game the right way.

As a good friend and a great coach always says: "Baseball used to just be baseball..."

See you out there.

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