Friday, August 31, 2007

Little League Baseball: Injecting Fun or Hype?

The essay below was written by Steve Kallas and Rick Wolff of The Center for Sports Parenting (Steve is an attorney and sports journalist in New York City; Rick is a noted author and host of WFAN's radio show "The Sports Edge").

I urge
all parents of young pitchers to read this. The Little League World Series may be over, but next season is just around the corner and your safety concerns will be taken up by rules committees all over this country come November and December.

Also, Kallas and Wolff spoke at length on August 26th about these issues on Wolff's WFAN radio show. You can find a list of The Sports Edge Podcasts here. The highlight of the show, I think, is an interview with Ridgefield, CT Little League Vice President, Joe Heinzmann. Just click on "Podcast" for the talk you want to listen to and then click again when the Podcast Subscribe box comes up. Let me know if you have trouble.

By Steve Kallas and Rick Wolff
Early August 2007

Later this month ESPN will broadcast the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Some of Little League’s hardest throwing and best-hitting 11-and-12-year-olds will be on display. But sadly, few spectators will see the increasing health and safety risks faced by these kids. Ironically, Little League has been praised in its recent weeks for its new pitch count policies and its concern about kids tossing curveballs.

But once one digs a little deeper, Little League Baseball faces harsh criticism, especially from physicians who believe current league policies subject young pitchers to possible long-term arm damage. Most of the problem comes from Little League Baseball’s decision to ignore its own medical experts when it comes to instituting standards for pitch counts and curve balls. Rather than trumpeting their new initiatives, Little League officials owe it to the millions of kids who play youth baseball to make sure they’re getting sound medical advice.

Overusing the arms of Little League pitchers has been a long standing problem. A few years ago the league tried instituting a voluntary pitch count for 11 and 12-year-olds. But the league kept changing the days of rest between starts. To its credit, Little League Baseball asked two of the country’s top orthopedic surgeons – Dr. James Andrews and Dr. Glenn Fleisig – to advise the league in designing uniform standards for pitch counts and, presumably, days of rest.

Andrews and Fleisig recommended that 11-and 12-year-olds should throw no more than 75 pitches per start and no more than 100 a week. And in 2005 and 2006, in Little League’s pilot pitch program, it mandated that kids in this age bracket -- who had thrown 61-85 pitches in a game -- then needed four days of rest before pitching again. Even Dr. Andrews, at a recent Little League International meeting in Houston, put up a chart which recommended that 11-and-12 year old kids needed four days of rest, and also that they should be stopped after throwing only 60 pitches (not 75 or 85) in a game.

But when Little League Baseball unveiled its new pitch count policy at the start of the 2007 season, it didn’t follow its own medical advisors’ advice. Instead, the league announced that 11 and 12-year-old boys could throw up to 85 pitches per game and needed only three days of rest between starts. “Our leagues were telling us that they felt that three days’ rest was adequate,” said Little League Baseball CEO Stephen Keener, when asked why the league had ignored its own medical advisors. “So when we were hearing that from a lot of our people doing it at the local level, we took that proposed modification back to Glenn Fleisig.”

The idea that the Little League Baseball put more credence in what volunteer coaches had to say about arm safety than orthopedic surgeons is a real problem. Meanwhile, despite what Keener says, Dr. Fleisig insists that neither he nor Dr. Andrews were consulted about these changes.

It gets worse The watered down pitch counts rules don’t even apply during the Little League tournament. Under the 2007 tournament rules, a kid can pitch on just two days rest. That means a Little Leaguer is allowed to throw as many as 255 pitches in a week during the tournament. When asked about this loophole, Little League Baseball’s medical advisors said they were unfamiliar with the playoff tournament rules, but Dr. Andrews said he found this total number of pitches in a week “worrisome.”

Dr. Tim Kremchek serves as the orthopedic surgeon for the Cincinnati Reds and also maintains a private practice, where he treats an alarming number of young pitchers with arm problems. Dr. Kremchek says the Little League’s decision to allow boys to throw up to 85 pitches on three days’ rest -- and then to two days’ rest during tournament time -- is “one or two giant steps backward.” He thinks the current tournament rules that permit Little League pitchers to throw up to 255 pitches in a week are even more dangerous to the long-term development of a kids’ arm. “That’s utterly ridiculous and I’m going to call it abuse,” he said. “What about the kids?”

If major league pitchers such as Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling – who possess some of the strongest arms in America – are subjected to strict pitch counts and, as a matter of course, need four day rest periods between starts, certainly Little League Baseball should impose even more careful guidelines on young boys whose arms are still in the development stage.

When you watch the Little League World Series, check out how many curve balls are thrown. And notice how the ESPN announcers marvel at how well these kids can make the ball break across the plate. Curve balls have become an accepted, even an expected part of Little League Baseball.

Yet orthopedic surgeons universally warn coaches and parents against kids throwing curve balls before age fourteen. “It’s not just the stress that is placed on the elbow in a youngster,” said Dr. Kremchek. “First of all, the grip is very difficult on a breaking ball. The amount of force and rotation of the forearm -- supination we call it – is significant in a breaking ball. And it’s very, very difficult to throw this correctly as a youngster because of the youngster’s small hands and small fingers.”

Kremchek treats many youngsters who have suffered damage to their arms from throwing too many curveballs too early in life. “I still feel very firmly that youngsters with their growth plates open – before they shave, ages 11, 12, and 13 in particular – and probably in most cases up to 14 – should not be throwing breaking balls,” he said.

In a recent appearance on HBO Real Sports, Kremcheck called the practice of teaching young kids to throw curve balls “an absolute crime.” Based on the damage he’s seen, Kremchek believes Little League Baseball should ban curve balls altogether.

Curiously, Little League Baseball CEO Stephen Keener agrees. “If I could, I would ban curve balls from Little Baseball,” Keener said in a broadcast interview on WFAN radio in March of this year. “But it’s really a question of enforcement. We don’t know how to enforce that rule.”

Instead, the league has commissioned a five-year study to examine whether curve balls are dangerous for young arms. This is unnecessary. The league’s own medical experts have already done two studies on this topic. In 1996 Drs. Andrews and Fleisig were commissioned by USA Baseball’s Medical and Safety Advisory Committee to examine how many pitches a youngster should be allowed to throw. “In general,” they concluded, “a child can start throwing a fastball at age 8, a change-up at age 10, and a curveball at age 14.” A study in the American Journal of Sports Medicine in 2002 by the same doctors also concluded that “pitchers between the ages of 9 and 12 should limit themselves to throw only fastballs and change-ups, and not throw sliders and curveballs.”

When Dr. Fleisig was asked about these previous studies, he attempted to deflect any questions by pointing to a new study which hasn’t been released yet, and that it’s the pitch count that matters more these days than throwing curves and sliders.

Since his proclamation on WFAN that he’d like to ban curveballs, Steve Keener has backed off his position a bit. He too points to this new study, but Keener says that he’s not at liberty to discuss it yet. But Dr. Kremchek, who has seen this new study, strongly rejects the notion that curveballs aren’t as dangerous as previously thought. Kremchek says: “It goes against all of the other studies, as well as the thought processes of physicians and medical people involved with baseball and articles that have been written about breaking balls and youngsters.”

Even Dr. Andrews still believes that kids under 14 should not throw curveballs and agrees that “if they [Little League] could enforce it [a curveball ban], it would be [a good thing].”

Little League knows it has a problem. Delaying five more years to address the issue, or pointing to a controversial new study, is not safe for today’s young pitchers. There’s a simpler solution – put the ban in the hands of the Little League umpires. Tell them to stop the game and issue a warning whenever a youngster throws a curve ball. If it happens a second time, remove the youngster from the mound. Meanwhile Little League Baseball should encourage the ESPN broadcasters to do a little less praising and a little more warning when kids throw curve balls.

Let’s start with common sense. Anybody who has spent any time at a baseball game in recent years where aluminum bats are used will tell you that there’s no question that a ball off a metal bat travels faster and farther than a ball off a wooden one. This is not to say that a line drive off a wood bat isn’t potentially dangerous; of course, it is. But the difference is that a line drive off an aluminum bat is just more dangerous.

CEO Keener claims that wood bats and metal bats these days perform exactly the same, even though he admits that he’s never actually been to a wood bat tournament.
No better example can be given than the 2007 Ridgefield (CT) Little League. Joe Heinzmann, Ridgefield Little League vice president, picks up the story:

“In 2007, the Ridgefield Little League majors division switched to wood bats for the regular season. We played 106 games, including playoffs, using wood bats. During these 106 games, five balls were hit over the fence for home runs. We allowed our players to switch to metal bats for the Connecticut District 1 Little League All-Star tournament. After our first five games, and against the best pitching in the district, our players hit six home runs over the fence, including one that went approximately 300 feet.”

Imagine hitting more home runs with metal bats in five games against the best pitching in the district than were hit in 106 games with wood bats in a local little league.

Keener does admit that “aluminum bats are easier to handle. The wood bats are more cumbersome. There’s no question that the non-wood bats are easier for the kids to swing.” He remains adamant, though, that too many critics of aluminum bats base their judgments on personal observations, not scientific evidence. “You can make all the presumptions you want based on perception, but until there’s a real credible demonstration, I certainly don’t support any kind of a ban on the non-wood bat.”

A study by Brown University bioengineers in 2002 compared ball speeds off wood and aluminum bats found that the average speed of a baseball coming off a metal bat is seven miles per hour faster than off wood bats. When it comes to a Little League pitcher trying to get his head out of the way of a line drive, a metal bat could be the difference between life and death.

Keener and the aluminum bat supporters dispute the Brown study, saying that aluminum bats are now manufactured to have the same ball exit speed as wood. But is that really possible? Dr. Robert Adair is professor emeritus of physics at Yale University and is the author of the best-selling book, The Physics of Baseball. Says Dr. Adair: “If the swing characteristics, including length, are the same, the ball will come off the aluminum bat, I would say, 7 or 8 percent faster than off a wooden bat. And there’s nothing you can do about that in the manufacturing. With an aluminum bat, the ball will come off faster than the wood bat.”

But what about Little League’s claims that the aluminum bats are now the same as wood?

“Wood is not very elastic,” observes Dr. Adair. “Now, with an aluminum bat, it will compress a lot more. It will compress maybe 10 times as much more. And that energy releases like a spring or trampoline. And it’s very efficient.”

In addition to this metallic trampoline effect, aluminum bats also feature a “sweet spot” on its barrel that is significantly larger than wood bats. That, of course, enhances the batter’s ability to hit the ball harder and farther.

The way aluminum bats are constructed these days, kids can swing the bat much faster than a wood bat. That’s a major key. But Keener disagrees: “Just because you can swing a non-wood bat through the hitting zone faster doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to hit the ball harder and further. That’s the point.”

Well, yes, that is the point, but Keener has it backwards. Any hitting coach or scout will tell you that increasing one’s bat speed definitely increases the power that a hitter can generate. And the greater the power, the harder the ball is hit, and the farther it will travel.

In a not well publicized case in 2002, a federal jury in Oklahoma held Hillerich & Bradsby (Louisville Slugger) liable for damages after pitcher Jeremy Brett was hit in the head by a ball off a metal bat and suffered serious head injuries. The jury verdict, which awarded Brett close to $150,000 in damages, was not appealed by the bat company.

There is another major lawsuit pending against a bat company in Helena, MT. Brandon Patch, an 18-year-old pitcher was killed on July 25, 2003, after being struck in the head by a line drive off a metal bat. That case is expected to go to trial in March 2008. There are also pending or settled cases relating to metal bat caused injuries in New York State, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut, and others.

Little League also claims that the number of serious injuries has gone down in the last 14 years, but this “dropoff” is not based on actual injuries. Rather, it’s based on Little League’s recording of secondary insurance claims; that is, it’s based on whether an injured kid’s parents file a claim with Little League’s insurance (most parents use their own insurance coverage for their injured child).

The problem with this injury statistic – based on insurance claims – is glaringly evident in the pending case of Baggs v. Little League International, Inc. in New York State Supreme Court. On July 8, 2006, during a Little League All-Star game in Staten Island, NY, John Baggs, Jr. was pitching and was hit above the eye with a ball hit off a metal bat, suffering head injuries.

The boy’s parents used their own insurance to cover the medical bills, but the bills became so onerous that they filed a claim with Little League insurance. Had the child’s injuries not been so severe or had the medical bills not been so high, Little League would have never known what had happened to this young pitcher, according to the attorney for the Baggs’ family, John O’Leary of Staten Island, NY.

One final suggestion. If Little League Baseball wants to put an end to any debate about the safety issues of wood versus aluminum bats, why not take some of their hundreds of thousands of licensing money and have an independent research team do a complete and exhaustive scientific study? And do the testing now, so that by the start of the 2008 season, all Little League parents, coaches, players, and administrators will know the truth about using wood or aluminum bats.

But for now -- despite serious head injuries, lawsuits, and scientific evidence -- Little League Baseball continues to support the use of metal bats. “You can make all the presumptions you want based on perception,” said Keener. “But until there’s a real credible demonstration, I certainly don’t support any kind of a ban on the non-wood bat.”

Wood versus aluminum? Ask any Little League batter whether they would prefer to use a wood or aluminum bat in a game. Reports Joe Heinzmann of Ridgefield Little League: “Of the 28 players playing this summer on our two All-Star teams, all 28 chose to use metal bats over wood.”

That speaks volumes.

©Copyright, Kallas and Wolff, August 2007

A portion of this essay was previously published in the Hartford Courant.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Non-wood Bat Ban Upheld in NYC

Yesterday, Tuesday, August 28th, U.S. District Judge John G. Koeltl ruled that New York City Council's ban of non-wood bats from high school level play was indeed constitutional. The ban had been challenged in a law suit by a coalition of metal bat manufacturers, youth baseball associations, and several parents on behalf of their high school playing kids. The coalition has organized itself into a group called "Don't Take My Bat Away." You can Google this issue, but a good press summary of the ruling may be found at The brief article is titled, "Judge: NYC Metal Bat Ban OK."

This is the first major step in what will very likely be a long process over the next five to ten years as amateur baseball moves back to wood bats. It is not clear whether the anti-bat ban coalition is having a lot of effect yet in the state legislatures of New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, but at ballparks all over the country a lot of parents, coaches and players are leaning toward the idea that metal just isn't right.

The number of wood bat leagues and tournaments around North America has been increasing every year for the past decade. And the real decision makers in all of this will be the kids who play the game themselves. As an example, this past summer the World Wood Bat Association held its 15U national championship in East Cobb, Georgia. During this same time period, Junior American Legion regional tournaments were underway all over the country. In the end, kids have to make their own decisions. I know nothing about the level of play in Junior American Legion ball, but watching the Norcal Black Sox, East Cobb Astros, and Richmond Braves at the Wood Bat tournament, I felt like I was watching three of the best 15-year-old teams I had ever seen. Legion players use metal. The players at the World Wood Bat Association tournament were there because apparently they don't need to use metal.

The wood vs. metal debate is just heating up. Stay tuned for more. NYC's ban goes into effect on September 1st. It is already creating a ruckus for people who are afraid to hit with wood. I'm looking for quotes from NYC coaches looking forward to playing with lumber.

Monday, August 27, 2007

The Big Boys: Just How Interested in Your Wood Purchase Are They?

Small wood bat companies are as American as apple pie (and as Canadian as maple trees) -- see my entry, "Support Your Local Wood Bat Company." But the majority of bats sold in the Americas (wood and metal) are produced and marketed by the companies whose products you always find in your local sports outlets: Louisville Slugger, Rawlings, DeMarini (Wilson Sporting Goods), Nike, Easton, etc.

How committed are these companies to wood? DeMarini, the company that gave us multi-walled aluminum bats, carries two composite wood bat models ($130 a pop); Easton carries a line of six northern white ash and three maple models; and Rawlings puts out about twenty products under their "Big Stick" moniker -- a few maple offerings, but mostly northern white ash. Mizuno also carries a line of wood bats (at reasonable consumer prices), including several youth models. And Nokona's surprisingly broad range of products, while not cheap, have certainly gained a great deal of attention since Vladimir Guerrero won the 2007 Home Run Derby swinging a Nokona Wrecking Crew 271.

But by far the biggest and most influential company in the bat world is Hillerich & Bradsby, who trade under the name Louisville Slugger. 60% of major league players use their products. They carry 50 models for the general baseball consumer. The company has noted that while they sell about 90,000 wood bats to professionals annually, they sell 660,000 to amateur and youth players. H&B own their own lumber supply in the forests of Pennsylvania and New York and up until a few years ago supplied much of the wood to all bat makers in the country.

Besides their consumer selections, they also carry a huge line of 150 different models for professionals players. You can go to their pro homepage, but you can't get inside without an Association of Professional Baseball Players of America ID number. H&B uses their best wood for the pros, but they now carry two special models for consumers, Derek Jeter's P72 Black-Smith (ash) and Ken Griffey's C271 Black (maple) that they guarantee is pro quality.

So what makes the most sense? Buy your bats from a big company like Rawlings (who has about 25% of the pro market) or Hillerich & Bradsby? Lots of amateur players are crossing over to wood using DeMarini's composite bats. Nokona and Mizuno, unlike other big sporting goods associations, do not seem to have invested in metal bats at all. I like their wood offerings and hear good things about them from kids out on the field.

No matter what, the search for just the right bat should not be limited by a trip to Dick's or Sports Authority. In many cases the smaller companies like BWP Bats, Zinger Bats, Superior Bat Company, Dbats, XBats, HBats, Badger Bat Company, and NYStix offer excellent customized product at better prices than retail chains.

There are so many variables that go into making bats: barrel size, wood type, handle diameter, length, swing weight, balance point, finish, the size of the knob. It's probably not very smart to want to swing the same bat as one's favorite players. You need to experiment, and you need to take your time. One good thing about wood for today's serious player is that you can buy four or five nice bats for less than the cost of one metal Stealth™ or Exo™. This is true for Little Leaguers too. Any bat company worth their beans makes several different models for younger players. There's no question that wood will feel different when you first start using it. You're going from a -12 to a -3 or -4. The bat will weigh 26-ounces or so vs. 19-ounces. But over time you'll start to understand what the older kids do: that it's all about what feels right to you.

My Conclusion
I had thought that I would do a hard core critique of the corporate bat companies out there since most of them carry metal units too and spend most of their marketing dollars on these. Some of these companies have also brought a lawsuit against the city of New York trying to stop the NYC high school metal bat ban. I'm not sure about the quality of wood many of these big companies are using -- at least for their amateur customers. I'm not sure how committed most of them are to marketing their wood bats. It seems clear, though, that Hillerich & Bradsby are indeed committed and that we should all be indebted to them (even if they are helping fund the fight against the NYC metal bat ban). Louisville Sluggers are the standards by which all bats must be judged. They have more history, more R&D experience, and certainly more satisfied customers than any other company out there. Rawlings, too, B&H's biggest competitor, may be looking to protect their share of the metal market, but there are many young players happy to swing their Big Sticks.

However, I still also heartily recommend investing in small and local bat makers. Not all of these companies turn their own bats, but they want to see happy customers and they take pride in their offerings. If you're a serious player (or a parent serious about your child's play), take some time to go out of your way at baseball tournaments and the batting cages to talk to people swinging lumber with strange branding. You never know what you're going to learn.

Some of the finest youth hitting I've ever seen came off the early model version of Akadema's Amish-543 back in 2002. That bat was turned in Amish country about 70 miles from our home here in Philadelphia. We learned about Akadema at our local indoor baseball club. The way the ball jumped off that bat was astounding. I watched my 14-year-old son, Sam (now 19) hit a 360-foot shot to straightaway center in his first at-bat in 8th grade (he had decided he would see what he could do at the plate with wood). The kid went on a tear for three games. Then, in a tight contest as he stood in the on-deck circle his coach walked up to him, took the A-543 out of his hands and said, "You're hitting with metal from here on out." Sam didn't hit with such zest for the rest of the season. Bats are funny. They have this way of getting into our brains and our souls.

See you on the field...

Friday, August 24, 2007

Don't Worry, They Won't Leave

Two more articles detailing a press conference of sorts given by the Little League and Don't Take My Bat Away spokesperson, Ari Fleischer.

Little League Hit By Wood Bat Debate (

Wood vs. Metal Debate Making Some Batty (Staten Island

also, I just found this one as well:

Ex-Whitehouse Spokesman Joins Debate Over Metal Bats (NY Times)

The contention from Little League's point of view is that returning to wood bats means that kids will leave baseball for lacrosse, soccer, and video games. They offer no evidence.

They also don't seem to understand how dumb they sound. Baseball's hey-day, especially Little League's, was in the '50s and '60s where everyone played with wood bats. Little League baseball's membership rolls have been dwindling since at least the '90s.

There's no question there is an adjustment period for kids when they move to wood, but I'd say in less than a year the weight differential wouldn't mean a thing. In fact, it's pretty clear to me that the wood bat movement is growing and that Legion, Little League, and other organizations are going to lose out to independent summer and fall wood bat leagues. Imagine how much stronger kids might get swinging bats that weigh almost two pounds instead of ones that weigh barely one pound three ounces.

One last thing: on the issue of whether or not Little League can play with metal at Williamsport next year: I would suggest a waiver from PA's rules if LL were willing the following year to try an all-wood tournament. I guarantee more excitement and press coverage!

Click here to go to the Fleischer press conference.

Thanks to Joe Domalewski for keeping me up to date on things and sending article references.

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.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Support Your Local Wood Bat Company

I've spent the past week putting together a list of all the small wood bat companies I can find in North America. I know I'm not done with my research, but already I have identified over 75 small companies with web sites. Besides the few commonly known companies like Old Hickory, Sam Bat, D-Bat, M-Powered Baseball, and The Marruci Bat Company, there are companies like Rock Bats, Bayou Bat Company, Hoosier Bat Company, The Northern Mash Baseball Company, and Talbot Turnings (their bats are pictured here). The list goes on and on. Most of these companies work with both Ash and Hard Maple. Some, like Barnstable Bat, located in Cape Cod, also make Birch bats. Many can customize their products for you. And many of these bat masters are true craftsmen, creating beautiful works of art.

What's really important to keep in mind here is that virtually all of these companies are small businesses run by dedicated and passionate entrepreneurs who love the game of baseball for all the right reasons. Companies hail from almost every state in the union. A number of top companies can also be found next door in Canada (Zinger Bats, Sam Bat, Prairie Sticks, KR3 Bats, and Mash Bat in particular). The typical quality maple bat runs in price between $60 and $80. High-end bats can cost as much as $100 or more. There are usually discounts for bulk purchases.

Another obvious point is that most of these companies depend upon skilled manual labor and the kind of work ethic that ensures quality with every product turned out.

If anyone is interested, I am considering putting my database of bat companies into an online format with a geographic interface. I want to strongly suggest that players consider shopping regionally and locally for their bats. Supporting businesses in your "neck of the woods" should be the first tenet of a free market system. And if you find a product you like, I'd suggest trying to contact the company and maybe even go meet the bat masters who make your favorite stick. If you're going to hit home runs, you ought to be able to look in the eyes of the person who made your bat for you and thank them...

Next up - The Big Boys: Just How Interested in Your Wood Purchases Are They?

See you on the field.

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

Pondering Baseball's Purity

Pondering baseball's purity
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.