The aluminum bat wars continue to heat up with no apparent end in sight.
The key players are aluminum bat manufacturers, who are part of a multi-million dollar industry, against those who want the product banned from youth and high school baseball.
Passions run high, and the arguments spewed by both sides can be testy as it turns into a debate about money versus safety.
Manufacturers claim they have tests that prove aluminum bats are not more dangerous than wooden bats. Their opponents insist those tests are flawed and in some cases manipulated.
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Perhaps caught in the line of fire, the Florida High School Athletics Association uses what’s called the “minus-3” rule, which means no bat can weigh more than three inches less than its length. For example, a 33-inch bat must weigh at least 30 ounces. Before 2001, high school rules allowed for a “minus-5.”
But players can circumvent the rule’s intent with bat shaving, composite bat rolling and what is called endloading. Those capable of performing such services advertise liberally on the Internet.
In bat shaving, the top or end cap of the aluminum bat is removed, and the inner walls of the bat are thinned out (shaved). It is best done on a lathe and results can be dramatic.
Some argue shaved bats are nothing more than lethal weapons and take away a player’s motivation to work hard. At worst, they can be extremely dangerous.
“Shaved bats allow the walls to have a greater trampoline effect when a ball hits it, which allows for more pop and distance,” one advertiser says.
The company claims composite bats can gain 30 to 50 feet of distance when rolled and shaved. It also gives tips on how to further amplify the effects of shaving, such as rolling the bat first to break in its fibers. The process makes the bat more flexible and allows the ball to bounce off it easily with less effort on the player’s part, its advocates say.
The best or worst part of the process, depending on one’s point of view, is that shaved bats usually go undetected by umpires. So a bat labeled a minus-3 might have the pop of a minus-5 or perhaps more.
“Minus three is the standard for high school and college,” says IMG Baseball Operations and Wood Bat League coordinator Jason Elias. “The higher the more dangerous because more bat speed is created. The NCAA went from a minus five to minus three in 1999, and the high schools followed. They were trying to slow the exit speeds” of the ball off the bat.
Under endloading, additional weight is added inside the end cap. Those who sell this service say it can cause pretty substantial increase in distance due to the added inertia when the ball strikes the bat.
“Most of the time the umpires look at the bat, but there is no way to tell if they are doctored,” says Fred Burnside, South Dade head coach, who has been coaching college and high school baseball for more than 34 years (13 in college).
“I am convinced kids are tampering with their bats,” Burnside says. “You go on the Internet and can see companies advertising that they can increase exit speed — five miles an hour by bat shaving.”
Tim Lawson, an upcoming senior at IMG’s Pendleton School, has used aluminum and wooden bats over an extended period of time. Entering his third season on the Pendleton baseball team, he uses wood bats in the fall, mostly aluminum in the spring and plays in the IMG summer wooden bat league.
The 17-year-old from Toronto doesn’t need to read any reports or tests to determine which bat is more potent. He sees it every day on the field. A first baseman, he can tell the difference as much as pitchers.
“The balls come off the aluminum bats a lot harder and you have to adjust on defense. You’ve got to play deeper when they are using metal bats,” Lawson says. “Aluminum bats for high school make the game more exciting. It can get scary, but the main thing is that you have to stay alert. There are a lot of ways to doctor bats. Composite bats are mixed in with aluminum and fiber and different materials.”
Palmetto High baseball coach Joe Collis does not want to go back to wooden bats, primarily because of costs.
Dwayne Strong, Manatee High baseball coach and professional hitting instructor, is on the fence.
“I don’t think going back to wood is a bad thing, but I don’t think it will happen,” Strong says. “The biggest problem you have is athletes are bigger, better and stronger. I heard about bat shaving and shame on those guys. That is horrible.”
None of the high school baseball programs purchase bats. The cost is picked up by the players, who prefer to buy their own bats.
“I wouldn’t want to go back to wooden bats. It would cost more money,” Collis said. “The majority of kids in high school would be breaking them left and right. I think there is always going to be a risk whether it’s wood or aluminum.”
In 2012, the FHSAA will put into effect rules adopted by the National Federation of State High School Associations to hopefully ensure that the performances of non-wood bats are more comparable to wood bats.
But again, questions arise regarding the validity and accuracy of the tests to certify those bats, and that won’t stop players from doctoring bats.
Alan Dell, Herald sports reporter, can be reached at 745-7080, ext. 2112.