Hardball-hardbat: A call for change from aluminum to wooden baseball bats in the NCAA

Ever since hits and home runs increased significantly after a leading aluminum bat manufacturer introduced the ABlack Magic bat in 1985, a controversy has raged in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) concerning the use of aluminum baseball bats. The first Abat summit with members of the NCAA Baseball Rules Committee and executives of aluminum-bat manufacturers was held in the summer of 1994. From this point on it was evident that the ability of manufacturers to manipulate the size and weight of baseball bats created an injury hazard and a player-development problem for collegiate-level baseball players. Although small steps have taken place to limit the hazardous equipment, a final solution would be found in a mandate by the NCAA for its member institutions to make a permanent and exclusive switch from aluminum bats to wooden bats. Specifically, this mandate should be directed to those programs at the Division I level where the baseball players are strong enough, fast enough, and skilled enough to injure one another by their use of aluminum bats.

Call for Change: Player Safety

Baseball bat manufacturers, through advances in modern technology, have been able to create aluminum bats that are lighter in weight than wooden bats yet still meet the required measurement and size standards. These lighter bats allow for faster bat speeds during swings that result in a greater hit-ball velocity. Because the ball exits the aluminum bat with a higher velocity than would a ball from a wooden bat, there is naturally a greater danger of injury to defensive players. “Any idiot can see that the ball jumps off an aluminum bat faster than off of a wooden bat,” said Jim Morris, head baseball coach at the University of Miami. This favors hitters but is obviously dangerous to pitchers and infielders (Heavy Metal, p. 27, 1997).

Although the NCAA is aware of the danger involved with aluminum baseball bats, the organization has refused to make a permanent switch to wooden bats. The rationale postulated by the NCAA for its stance is that there are risks in all sports and that pitchers and infielders are aware of those risks (Bloomberg, 1998). While the NCAA is steadfast in opposing a switch, its Baseball Rules Committee did agree in 1998 to stricter guidelines on performance standards for aluminum bats in order to provide a safer player environment. The committee had received research that illustrated the recent rising rate of serious injury to pitchers from batted infield line drives. The new standards prohibit the development and use of an aluminum bat that produces a batted ball speed of over 93 miles per hour. The interesting fact here is that this was the established standard for wooden batted ball speeds. The obvious question here is, instead of creating wooden bat standards for aluminum bats, why not just use wooden bats?

Easton Sports, Inc., one of the industry’s leading aluminum bat manufacturers, filed a restraint-of-trade lawsuit against the NCAA and is seeking $267 million in damages and injunctive relief. The suit was filed in the United States District Court in Kansas City, Kansas.

Ultimately, the adoption of revised aluminum-bat regulations brought lawsuits from aluminum and wooden bat manufacturers who sued under the premise that the NCAA had conspired to lock the other out of the bat market (Hawes, 2000). The Baum Company, a manufacturer of wood composite baseball bats, claimed the NCAA aluminum standards were lax and that in addition to being unsafe, aluminum bats were also preventing the Baum Company from selling wooden bats to NCAA schools (Kan, 1999). The Baum Company also accused the NCAA of conspiring with aluminum bat manufacturers in order to eliminate competition from wooden bat makers. In this case, the court ruled that the NCAA’s refusal to change rules further or to ban aluminum bats is lawful (Kan, 1999). As a result of the Baum Company ruling, Hillerich and Bradsby and Easton Sports, Inc., the industry’s leading manufacturers of both aluminum and wooden bats, dropped their restraint-of-trade lawsuits against the NCAA. Within the ruling against the Baum Company the court illustrated how the NCAA had the lawful right of refusal and the lawful right to adopt bat standards for the protection of players (Kan, 2000). Therefore, the NCAA has the right to modify its aluminum-bat requirements or make the switch to wooden bats.

In July of 2000, the NCAA Baseball Rules Committee ruled that there would be no immediate changes in the specifications for manufacturing baseball bats. This rule was based on the recommendations of the NCAA Baseball Research Panel, which reviewed results from laboratory testing and performance during the 2000 intercollegiate season. Don Kessinger, associate athletics director for internal affairs at the University of Mississippi and chair of the rules committee, stated that the recommendations of 1999 restored balance to the game and made the aluminum bats perform more like wooden bats.

While higher standards are better than no standards, because the standards can be circumvented there is a need for the outright elimination of the use of aluminum bats at the college level. A recent study by the University of Massachusetts found that a loophole exists in the new aluminum bat standards (Hawes, 2000). This research shows that it is possible to physically change the center of swing gravity with an aluminum bat. This is done using a technological weight-shifting technique in manufacturing the aluminum bat. This center of gravity change allows the aluminum bat to still meet bat standards but when used in the field, the batted ball speed may greatly exceed the standard ball exit speed. With wooden bats, however, it is not possible to shift the center of gravity in order to achieve this advantage. This loophole in the aluminum-bat rules will allow manufacturers to create an aluminum Ahot bat capable of harder hits which will again lead to a greater safety hazard for infielders and pitchers (Hawes, 2000).

Call for Change: Player Development

Although potential injuries are the most important factor, there are other reasons that call for a switch to wooden bats. Studies show that with an aluminum bat, a hitter can make contact with the ball at almost any point on the bat and achieve the same effect as a hit on the Asweet spot of a wooden bat (Forbes, 1998). This fact is evident by an examination of offensive production. Over the last five years (1995-1999), batting averages, scoring, and home runs have all increased in NCAA baseball. Batting averages increased to .301 (from an average of .296 over the previous 15 years), scoring jumped from 6.49 to 6.81 per game, and home runs from .80 to .91 per game. Therefore, not only are aluminum bats lethal against defensive baseball players, they are also distorting the development of college pitchers who have to use drastically different strategies when pitching against players using aluminum bats than they would if they were pitching against players using wooden bats. This is creating development problems for pitchers who are trying to make the transition from collegiate-level pitching to professional-level pitching where the only bats allowed are wooden.

There are also batter-development issues at stake. Many young baseball players use their college baseball careers to refine their skills in attempts to prepare for professional baseball. Fortunately, the extensive farm system of Major League Baseball allows many Division I players opportunities to play at the professional level. Wooden bats, which are used exclusively by professionals, are much more challenging to hit successfully with than are aluminum bats. The banning of aluminum bats and the use of wooden bats in the NCAA at the Division I level would help college baseball players become better prepared for either possible failure or a possible future in professional baseball (Killer Bats, 2000).

A prime example of this case is that of Marshal McDougall, a second baseman at Florida State University from 1998 through 2000. In May of 1999, McDougall hit six home runs and collected 16 RBI and 25 total bases in a game against the University of Maryland. All three of these feats, which are all NCAA records, were accomplished through the use of an aluminum bat (Bechtel, 2000). For the year, McDougall used his aluminum bat to secure a .419 batting average and record 28 homeruns. Despite the outstanding game and season, baseball teams passed on McDougall until the 26th round of the 1999 draft. Pro baseball scouts feared that he might not make the immediate impact they needed from a higher-round draftee. They also feared he would have a difficult adjustment to the use of wooden bats. In McDougall’s first summer of minor-league baseball, their skepticism was affirmed as his wooden bat produced only a .248 batting average and one home run. Most likely, an NCAA wooden-bat mandate would have never allowed for McDougall’s six home run game. However, if he had been allowed to play and practice with a wooden bat over his college career, he would have been much better prepared for the wooden-bat demand of professional baseball.

Call for Change: Cost

Lastly, when a mandate such as this is suggested, the question of cost also becomes an integral issue. It can argued that aluminum bats last longer than wooden bats and can be used in games for several years. In fact, a $1200 investment in aluminum bats can be enough for an entire team and will last three to five seasons. Conversely, a $1200 investment into wooden bats might not last one whole season. Because of the obvious differences in cost, the proposed mandate for change from aluminum bats to wooden bats is directed only at the elite level Division I teams. The Division II and Division III levels of non-elite athletes do not pose the same high risk of injury as do the players in the Division I programs. Furthermore, Division I programs that are top-25 caliber would have the added benefit of receiving sponsorships from wooden bat manufacturers.

Unfortunately, the Anon-elite Division I teams would have to adjust and absorb the cost of wooden bat use. For the safety and development of their players, however, this would have to be accepted. Division I hockey programs do not try to save money by wearing hockey helmets without face shields. That would be unsafe. Universities do not complain about the cost of football helmets. Swimming programs do not stop using chlorine in the pools to save money. It is then very justifiable to ban aluminum bats and spend the extra money to use wooden ones. The health and safety of the student athlete, in addition to the development of his skills, should be the primary concern.

Call for Change

The solution to this baseball conundrum is for the NCAA to institute a ban on the use of aluminum baseball bats at the Division I level of competition. There are several reasons for this suggested mandate for change. Because the exit speed of a baseball hit off of an aluminum bat is much faster than the exit speed of a ball hit off of a wooden bat, the safety of players (infielder and pitchers) should be reason enough for a change. There is also a need for a switch from aluminum bats because the use of wooden bats would contribute to the development of college baseball players, both the hitters and pitchers. Furthermore, if the NCAA wants to move in the direction of an aluminum-bat mandate, it has the legal authority to do such. The Association can lawfully institute such a ban under legal product selection. Finally, although the change might increase equipment costs for some institutions of higher learning, the cost is a minor price to pay for the safety and development advantages that would be obtained through the use of wooden bats.

References

Bechtel, M. (2000). Heavy metal rap: Ruthian feats by Florida States Marshall McDougall went largely unrewarded. Sports Illustrated, 92, 11.

Bloomberg, S. (1998). NCAA approves new rules for bats. The Legal Intelligencer, 13, 4.

Forbes, S. (1998). Strike em out. Forbes, 31, 1-4.

Hawes, K. (2000). Baseball bat standards return to the examination table. The NCAA News, 14, 1-8.

Heavy Metal. (1997). Sports Illustrated, 86, 27.

Kan, D. (1999). Recent cases. The Entertainment Law Reporter, 21 (3), 2.

Kan, D. (2000). Recent cases. The Entertainment Law Reporter, 21 (11), 19.

Killer Bats. (2000). Sports Illustrated, 91, 20.

NCAA Revises Bat Rules. (2000). The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance, 71 (1), 8.