WARNING: Playing baseball is increasingly hazardous to kids' health.
That's the message from a California lawmaker who is proposing legislation to impose a three-year moratorium on the use of metal or composite bats in high school baseball games.
Assemblyman Jared Huffman is pushing for a crackdown after Gunnar Sandberg, 16, was critically injured while pitching for Marin Catholic High School when he was struck in the head March 11 by a line drive from a player using a metal bat.
The San Rafael Democrat called the incident a wake-up call to protect pitchers from laser-like drives hit by "performance-enhancing metal bats" while they stand virtually unprotected less than 60 feet from home plate after releasing the ball.
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"I think we can anticipate that if we don't step in at some point and do something, we're going to see more and more juicing of bats through new technologies," Huffman said.
Sandberg remained in critical condition Thursday in Marin General Hospital, spokeswoman Ashley Shah said.
Huffman said his three-year moratorium would buy time to explore options that could range from stiffer bat-performance standards to protective headgear for pitchers or a ban on non-wood bats.
Bat manufacturers and other opponents of a moratorium counter that claims of increased danger are nonsense.
"I think some people think that (bat makers) are like mad scientists in a laboratory trying to figure out how to make a potent, titanium, ultrasensitive bat – and that's not the case," said Mike May, spokesman for the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, the industry's trade group.
The governing bodies of college, high school and youth baseball already require bat manufacturers to meet a performance standard – called a "ball exit speed ratio" – that is designed to restrict the speed of a ball when struck by a bat.
Daniel Russell, who has conducted baseball-bat research as an associate professor of applied physics at Michigan's Kettering University, said studies show that faster line drives can be hit with metal or composite bats – but not by much.
"Under the current rules, it's possible for a non-wood bat to hit a ball 5 to 6 miles per hour faster," Russell said.
For a pitcher, the difference in reaction time is less than the blink of an eye when the hardest-hit line drive from a wood bat is compared to the hardest-hit line drive from a metal or composite bat, Russell said.
Put simply, serious injuries are just as likely with either bat, he said.
"What makes news is when there's a tragic thing like a kid getting hit in the face or somebody dying," he said. "That's extremely rare."
Russell said that bat testing standards are changing in a way that will force metal and composite bats to perform even more like their wood counterparts. The changes will be implemented in colleges in 2011 and high schools in 2012.
Huffman's office has not compiled statistics on the annual injuries that occur from wood vs. metal bats, and such figures were not readily available Thursday.
Huffman said there have been conflicting studies on bat performance. He said he has questions about the methodology used in some of them.
In 2002, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission declined to issue a rule that all non-wood bats perform like wood bats. The agency found there was insufficient evidence to conclude that metal bats posed an "unreasonable risk of injury."
Seventeen deaths were attributed to impact with a batted ball, eight of them involving non-wood bats, during a 10-year period ending in January 2001, the federal agency said in a letter rejecting the request for a crackdown on non-wood bats.
But Huffman is not alone in pounding the drum for pitchers – the city of New York and the state of North Dakota already have banned the use of metal bats in youth baseball, he said.
Huffman said he is not targeting colleges because of the difficulty in imposing a ban on sports governed by a national regulatory body.
The lawmaker is asking youth leagues to voluntarily impose a moratorium. No mandate is planned, however, partly because younger players tend to hit balls softer with less risk of severe injury, Huffman said. Youth leagues surely would abide by any safety standards that ultimately emerge, he said.
Jeff Carlson, Elk Grove High School baseball coach, said that requiring high school teams to purchase wood bats would be costly due to breakage. A couple dozen bats might be necessary for each player, costing $50 to $75 apiece, he said.
"I would love my kids to use wood bats, so I would vote for going all wood, it's an equalizer, but I just think that's unrealistic," he said, noting that the district already is targeting elimination of freshman baseball due to money woes.
Guy Anderson, Cordova High School baseball coach, said that government can never eliminate all risk of injury from baseball, football or other sports.
"It's sad that one person has to get hurt, but there are a lot more injuries that occur in other (sports or activities) and they don't stop it," Anderson said.
During his 41-year career, Anderson said that he can recall only once when a pitcher on his team was knocked down from a line drive to the head.
Wood bats can pose dangers, too, he said producing jagged edges or shards that can fly toward opposing players or into the stands.
Rather than ban use of metal bats, Anderson said he would prefer to see pitchers wear a light helmet or a protective insert in their caps.
"I think that would improve safety," he said.