Crackdown urged on metal baseball bats in youth sports

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, who stand 60 feet from the batter's box, virtually unprotected from balls hit off "performance-enhancing metal bats."

"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 Friday in a Marin County hospital.

Huffman said his three-year moratorium would buy time to explore options that could range from stiffer performance standards to protective headgear for pitchers to a ban on nonwood 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 makers to meet a standard called a "ball exit speed ratio" designed to restrict the speed of the ball after beng struck.

Daniel Russell, who has conducted research as an associate professor of applied physics at Michigan's Kettering University, said studies show that metal bats produce faster line drives -- but not by much. He put the difference at "5 to 6 miles per hour faster."

For a pitcher, the difference in reaction time is less than the blink of an eye, Russell said. Serious injuries are just as likely with either bat, he said.

Johansen High School athletic director and baseball coach Jim Davis agreed, saying "if a good hitter hits it off the sweet spot, it doesn't matter whether it's a wood or aluminum bat, he's going to generate the same power."

But there is a significant difference, said Davis, in how often hard line drives are hit with metal bats as opposed to wooden bats.

"The sweet spot on a wood bat might be 6 inches, but the sweet spot on an aluminum bat is about half the size of the bat itself," he said, making it more likely the ball will be well hit. "Kids realize you can make a mistake with an aluminum bat and still hit the ball hard."

Huffman's office has not compiled statistics on the annual injuries from wood compared with metal bats, and such figures are hard to find.

In 2002, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission declined to issue a rule that all nonwood 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 involving nonwood bats, during a 10-year period ending in January 2001, the federal agency said at the time.

But Huffman is not alone in wanting to ban metal bats. The city of New York and the state of North Dakota already have banned metal bats in youth baseball, he said. Friday, the Marin County Athletic League banned metal bats for the rest of the season.

Many argue that switching to wooden bats would be costly for schools, which already are cash strapped. Coaches estimate that teams would need a dozen wooden bats per player, costing $50 to $80 each.

"It's expensive to learn how to hit with a wooden bat," said Davis, "because hitting it in the wrong spot is going to break the wooden bat into splinters."

A quality aluminum bat can cost $300, he said, and won't break.

"A lot of kids use wooden bats in summer tournaments, because it makes them better hitters by making them focus on where they're hitting the ball off the bat," said Davis.

Modesto Bee staff writer Richard T. Estrada contributed to this report.