Concerns over the use of metal bats in high school baseball and softball games have resurfaced with the March 11 serious injury to Gunnar Sandberg, a 16-year-old pitcher for Marin Catholic High School’s baseball team. Sandberg had been placed in a medically induced coma after having been struck in the head by a batted ball during a practice game in which he had been pitching against Concord’s De La Salle High School.

Marin Catholic High principal Chris Valdez has said that players will switch to wooden bats for the remainder of the season and that he will ask the Marin County Athletic League, which has ten schools as members, to place a moratorium on the use of metal bats.

The chief danger in playing baseball or softball has always been the risk of being struck, particularly in the head, by either a thrown or batted ball. Much has been written and said over the years about the intimidation factor for a hitter facing a hard throwing pitcher, some of whom can approach or even exceed 100 miles per hour in velocity with varying degrees of control over where the ball is going. In fact, however, a batted ball can be even more dangerous, especially when lined straight back to the pitcher, who is only 45-60 feet away. Many baseball players and coaches believe that the danger increases when the ball is struck with a metal bat, with some studies showing that these bats can add 4 mph to the velocity. Pitchers whose follow through leaves them in a less than upright, forward facing position are especially vulnerable.

A spokesman for the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, Mike May, told Associated Press that the industry adopted standards in 2003 requiring that balls coming off metal bats are no faster than those coming off the best wooden bats.

Metal bats are no longer used at high school games in North Dakota and New York City.

Gil Lemmon, the commissioner of athletics for the North Coast Section of the California Interscholastic Federation, which is the governing body over South Fork High and the rest of the Humboldt-Del Norte League, replied to our e-mail by stating that National Federation of High Schools rules for baseball are followed locally. “The rules have specific guidelines concerning bats. As long as the guidelines are followed the NFHS believes that the rules provide a safe environment for our student athletes,” said Lemmon. Leagues such as H-DN can, of course, propose changes if it is desired. Lemmon continued that, “…any proposals, such as eliminating non-wood bats…” would then be reviewed by the NCS Sports Advisory Committee and Board of Managers. So far, no such proposals have emerged.

South Fork baseball coach Mat Bigham said that he prefers to swing the hardwood himself but, “…if metal and wood bats cost the same, then ideally metal is the way to go. They are great for durability plus the weight factor. That… makes a huge difference on bat speed.”

Our local survey of sporting goods outlets affirms that, while a person could spend over $400 for some metal bats, the type used for most high school players cost little, if any, more than wooden models. That definitely makes metal more economical.

McKinleyville High School baseball coach Dustin Dutra said that the H-DN league is not considering a ban on metal bats at this time. He added, however that, “I’m sure that at some point this topic will get visited, probably beginning at the Athletic Director level. As the technology has improved the greater the safety concerns have become. The last major adjustment made in regard to bats occurred within the last 10 years. The new regulations required all high school metal bats to have a Length to Weight differential no greater than 3 and the barrel diameter cannot be greater than 2 5/8 inches.”

Then Dutra made a point that is often argued about metal bats that is not directly related to safety. “I suppose,” he concluded, “…in a perfect world all high schools and colleges would go to wood bats since that is what is being used at the highest levels of baseball.” By that he would mean the major leagues. For over a century one of the basics of baseball has been the inside pitch, meaning a ball thrown “in on the hands” of batters. Those pitches serve several purposes: to keep the batter from “crowding the plate” or being able to lean his full body into a pitch on the outside part of the plate and therefore “get more wood” on the ball; to, yes, intimidate the batter somewhat; to change sight lines; to “break his bat” either literally or figuratively. Metal bats deny those advantages to a pitcher, which means that young pitchers do not learn how advantageous it is to pitch inside unless they join the very tiny minority of players who make it to that highest level. So they have changed the game, just like so many other modern features of technological change. Helmets for batters, baserunners, and coaches are relatively new features of the game that were scoffed at for years before being fully implemented. Are we about to witness another such change that takes us backwards to wood? Time, and, we can hope, science will tell.

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