Thursday, August 16, 2007

Little League Makes the Case for Metal

The op-ed, below, came out during the first week of August 2007. After you read it, I offer a letter that I sent Mr. Keener in response.

Don't knock non-wood bats

A ban would not add to safety, or fun, of amateur baseball.

By Stephen D. Keener, President and CEO of Little League International

At amateur baseball games, sentimentalists may listen for the "crack of the bat," but for a generation they have heard the distinctive ping of a non-wood bat. Tradition aside, that's not a bad thing.

Still, that ping seems to be on the minds of some politicians in New Jersey, New York and now Pennsylvania who are questioning the safety of non-wood bats. They believe that the ball flies off them faster and puts fielders at greater risk. They want to outlaw non-wood bats and require wooden bats, which they think would make the game safer.

At Little League International, where I am president and chief executive officer, we welcome this concern for kids. But in this case, the facts about non-wood bats and safety show that banning them would not make baseball safer, but could make it less fun. That's why we and nearly every other baseball organization in America oppose government bans on non-wood bats.

Here's why:

First, injuries from batted balls are dropping in Little League even though aluminum bat use is widespread. Injuries to pitchers, the closest fielders in front of the plate and the most vulnerable to hard-hit balls, are way down - from 145 in 1992 to 26 in 2004, thanks to standards put in place by bat manufacturers with Little League assistance. And they have stayed low ever since. Even better, no fatalities from batted balls in Little League have been reported since 1973. Before then, eight pitchers were tragically killed by hit balls: six from wood bats, two from aluminum.

Second, youth baseball organizations and bat makers have worked together since the early 1990s to develop and regulate non-wood bats so that balls hit with either type of bat have similar exit speeds. Together, we have developed the "bat performance factor" (BPF) rating, which is printed on every new bat sold. Little League even sets specific BPF limits. In short, we've improved the bats to ensure that they are safe and fun.

Third, our nation's top safety enforcement agency - the Consumer Product Safety Commission - researched this issue and said in 2002 that available incident data were not sufficient to indicate that non-wood bats may pose an unreasonable risk of injury. The commission concluded that a mandatory standard was not necessary to address perceived risks.

Finally, banning non-wood bats wouldn't make the game any safer, and it might reintroduce a risk that non-wood bats address quite well: the shattered wood bat flying into the field or bleachers. Banning non-wood bats wouldn't make the game more fun, either. Non-wood bats don't sting the hands of young players, and they have a bigger "sweet spot," helping batters them put the ball into play more often. And that's what baseball is really all about - fun and play.

We are a leader in youth sports safety. Since its first season in 1939, Little League has made safety a top goal, beginning with the introduction of the modern batting helmet in the 1950s. Over the years, our focus on safety has led to a number of innovations, rules changes and improvements that make youth baseball the safe game it is today. They include:

Eliminating the on-deck circle to reduce injuries caused by batters warming up.

Restricting head-first slides to reduce collisions.

Requiring catchers to wear masks with throat protectors.

Replacing rigid bases with bases that dislodge to reduce lower-leg injuries to sliding runners.

Mandating background checks for volunteers and those with repetitive access to players (a first for any youth sports organization).

Limiting pitch counts to reduce injuries to young pitchers (another youth baseball first).

Because of these and other steps, Little League baseball in particular, and amateur baseball in general, is one of the safest sports children can play. Football players endure high-speed collisions. Cheerleaders perform daredevil stunts and acrobatics. Basketball players throw elbows, leap into crowds, and push for position. Ice hockey, wrestling . . . pick any sport and you will find risky behavior.

Little League has worked diligently to identify and eliminate many of the risks involved in playing youth baseball. It's hard for everybody to have fun if even one person gets hurt.

We welcome the concern of anyone who wants to join us in this effort, including our elected representatives. But decisions about equipment and safety should be based on science and data, not on emotion and anecdotal evidence. We also hope government leaders trust those of us closest to the game and those who play it to continue making sure baseball is safe, while also keeping it fun.

Stephen D. Keener is president and chief executive officer of Little League International (, based in Williamsport, Pa.

My response...

Dear Mr. Keener:

I read your essay last week in The Philadelphia Inquirer. You may know that I published an op-ed in the Inquirer on the metal vs. wood controversy several months ago.

I have coached my three sons in youth baseball for 13 years and my middle son competes in national tournaments. For the record, I do not believe that government regulation is the way to go with any of this, but I am deeply troubled by the fact that baseball associations around the country are so dead set and even, it seems, desperate to defend the use of metal bats in a game that is one of the only things we have left connecting us to the days when this country was young and strong and growing.

I understand the argument about the relative safety of metal bats that you make. I'm not sure I fully agree (the data you site is statistical, and the samples are very limited given the changes that have occurred with bats and rules over the past decade, and there is still the reality of big strong hitters and small, slow-to-react pitchers) but more to the point, has Little League done a comprehensive survey of its members on whether they would be interested in returning to wood -- for whatever reason?

I ask this because I have yet to find someone who believes that metal alloy bats are preferable to wood in youth baseball. The only people who have any qualms about going back to wood are some players and coaches who feel that such a move would only make sense if everyone did it. All of this is in light of the performance enhancement scandals rocking the MLB. You note in your essay that baseball is meant to be fun and that taking metal out of the equation would limit that fun. Isn't it true that baseball is fun partly because it is such a challenge? Doesn't the game get its mystique and poetry from the fact that the main pieces of equipment are natural--leather, horsehide, and wood? If you talk to your members, you'll find a lot of them agreeing with these sentiments, acknowledging that wood bats are part of the game's great challenge, and that metal bats have sullied the true spirit of this bizarre and blessed American creation.

I recently returned from the 15U World Wood Bat Association Championships in East Cobb, Georgia. I have never witnessed so many exciting, thrilling, and engrossing baseball games in my life.

Two weeks earlier, my son, Jesse, was in Fort Myers at the BCS National Championships. This was a metal bat tournament, and while, apparently, it was enjoyable watching tomorrow's college and pro stars, big fly ball homers and unnaturally hard hit grounders scooting through the infield made for a number of less than challenging games for teams with bigger, stronger hitters -- my son being one of them.

With wood at East Cobb, outfielders were making over-the-shoulder and diving catches, infielders were laying out and throwing the ball off of one knee. Pitchers were able to focus on throwing quality strikes because they understood their team mates would make the plays behind them. It was marvelous. The final championship game went into extra innings as a 3-3 tie. The game was finally won on bunts, good base running, and, ultimately, a legitimate hard-hit slashing double in the gap.

Ah, baseball. There's a reason we love it so much!

I'm just curious then whether Little League International has polled its members, or is interested in polling its members. I am asking the same question of the NCAA and the American Legion. It would seem to be your duty, wouldn't it? As they say, the game is bigger than all of us. Personally, I love this game because it is very difficult to play well and because it teaches kids from 6 to 35 how to deal with overwhelming challenges. You yourself admit that metal has a bigger sweet spot, "helping batters put the ball into play more often." As a coach and someone who grew up playing with a Roberto Clemente wood bat in my neighborhood, that statement doesn't sit well with me. It very likely doesn't sit well with most of your dues paying parents either. I'm sure it wouldn't sit well with Roberto himself.

Hopefully, your organization can think a little deeper than you have so far. I would like very much to help in that process. Please consider me someone who wants nothing more than to see this game expand and grow back into what it was when we were kids.

Most sincerely,

David Biddle

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