By David Biddle America has become more befuddled about baseball than ever before.
In the major leagues, we just witnessed Barry Bonds breaking Henry Aaron's career home-run record. Our befuddlement, of course, comes from the problem of performance-enhancing drugs and the notion that at least some of the top players of the last decade have cheated their way to records, awards, and media attention. Acknowledging Bonds' feat has been all but impossible for many of the game's die-hard fans. The word on everyone's mind is purity.
However, a much more important battle over purity is brewing on neighborhood fields all over the country: the use of high-tech, metal-alloy bats in youth and amateur baseball. North Dakota and New York City already have mandated wood for high school play.
The New Jersey Legislature is considering "Steven's Law," which would outlaw metal bats for anyone under age 18. The law is named for Steven Domalewski, who was hit by a line drive in the chest last summer. His heart stopped, and he suffered severe brain damage from which he is still recovering.
Similar laws have been considered in Massachusetts, Illinois and Montana. Numerous leagues throughout the country have moved back to wood. Pennsylvania and New York also have bills up for considerationThe trend is clear, but so is the controversy.
The debate is over safety. But let's face it, metal or wood, baseball can be a dangerous game. Pitchers throw 5.25-ounce rock-like balls in close quarters at speeds that give batters about a half a second to react. Then batters hit balls back, often at the same or higher speeds.
The outcomes in New York City and North Dakota, along with the New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania legislation, have established somewhat surprising opposing forces. On one side are rather conservative politicians trying to regulate safety. On the other are youth- and amateur-baseball organizations worried about participation levels, and the metal-bat industry, looking to protect the $300-million-a-year revenue.
The politicians say they've seen enough and need to act. Yet, according to metal proponents, numerous injury-rate studies, from Little League International to NCAA baseball, actually show a decline in serious and life-threatening injuries over the last decade. Evidence suggests the game is safer than football, hockey, wrestling and boxing.
To anyone who spends time around Little Leaguers and high school players, there is no question that metal-alloy bats (the best of which now run nearly $400, which parents willingly shell out) outperform wood. Even though the industry voluntarily re-engineered bat technologies with specific guidelines for length-to-weight ratios and a controlled ball-exit-speed ratio supposedly equal to that of the best wood bats, any coach or cleanup hitter will tell you that returning to wood would drastically cut down on homers and batting averages.
Indeed, there's a reason the pros don't use metal-alloy Stealths and Exos: Pitchers would go out of business paying insurance premiums, and fans would think they were at a football game every time they checked the scoreboard.
All of this misses the real point: Metal bats have the same impact on the game as steroids and human growth hormones. They have turned youth baseball into something of a farce -- at least to those of us who grew up in the '40s, '50s, and '60s. Batting averages in college and high school run about 100 points higher than they did in the 1950s and 1960s. Or just take a look at scores from 2006 American Legion tournaments: 18-12, 16-15, 18-7, 17-8, 15-14.
In fact, while the media have concentrated on the battle between politicians and the bat industry, most baseball aficionados - even kids who love their alloyed averages and double-digit homers, will tell you that going back to wood will return the game to its proper level. Defense, pitching, finesse offense, and athletic talent are what the game is all about. Power has its place, but not at the expense of poetry.
I predict that youth baseball is in the process of returning completely to wood - from Tee Ball through college. All we need is one more kid with a compressed sternum or crushed skull from a 95-mile-per-hour come-backer to the mound. It will happen. What the safety studies don't tell you is that, sometimes, freshman pitchers are no match for 19-year-old team captains about to be signed by the New York Yankees or St. Louis Cardinals.
As Bonds' now ponders the notion of 800 home runs, mollify yourself with the knowledge that at least he's spent his entire career using wood. Number 800 will start with the crack of the bat, not the ping of an expensive metal trampoline.