USA Baseball has developed new standards for the bats of youth players to make metal bats perform more like wood bats. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun video)
For Cal Ripken Jr., the resounding crack of a wooden bat striking a baseball in the sweet spot was the sound of spring — much more satisfying than the "ping" or "bink" heard when a youth player with an aluminum bat makes contact.
"I was from a baseball family, and I thought wood was what you were supposed to use," the Hall of Famer says. But Ripken concedes that more powerful aluminum bats have a lighter feel and can be easier for young players to swing.
Like coaches and parents around the country, the Orioles icon is "a little torn" over which is better for kids.
It's a baseball debate as old as the designated hitter: wood or metal? Now the amateur game's governing body has stepped to the plate this season with a new standard aimed at splitting the difference: Metal engineered to perform like wood.
Many coaches believe the bats, more old-school and with less "pop" than earlier aluminum versions, will be more suitable for teaching.
The change by USA Baseball affects millions of metal bat-wielding kids in Little League, Pony Baseball and other youth organizations — including one named for Ripken — as they take the field this spring.
In the short term, it also portends a big year for bat sales, as youth leagues and parents purchase shiny new metal or composite bats with names such as Techzilla, Axebat and Ghost X. Costs range from less than $100 to more than $400.
Brian Stwarka's son Tyler, 12, plays in the Havre de Grace Little League.
"I'm one of the unfortunate ones," the father said. "I bought two bats."
"We bought the second one because the first one was a Christmas present and it wasn't the bat I thought it would be."
Some programs not under the USA Baseball umbrella are delaying or forgoing the switch.
"We're not making everybody buy new bats," said Andy Paladino, commissioner of Reisterstown Baseball, an independent program with about 350 players.
USA Baseball, which developed the standard in consultation with scientists and bat manufacturers, says the shift will make the game more uniform across different ages. The National Federation of State High School Associations and the NCAA adopted metal bat standards years ago designed to parallel wood and limit the "trampoline" effect that could turn even poorly hit balls into line drives, raising batting averages and boosting home runs.
Players in the professional minor leagues and Major League Baseball have always been limited to using wood. With their strength and skill, and more potent bats in their hands, they would overwhelm the game.
"We once had a couple aluminum bats around the big-league batting cage," Ripken says. "I remember [fellow Hall of Famer] Robbie Alomar picked one up in Oakland, and he was going so far into the bleachers to straightaway center that it was almost ridiculous."
Ripken was not involved in developing the new standard, but said he favors making bats act more like wood. With wood, he said, "you don't get rewarded" for hitting the ball too close to the hands or off the label.
When struck on the label, a wooden bat can crack. When hit near the handle, it can sting the hands.
It might hurt a bit, but many coaches consider it valuable feedback.
Robert Richardson, president of the St. Mary's Babe Ruth League, supports the standard, even if it makes leagues and parents shell out hundreds of dollars on new equipment. He expects it will make the game safer for young players. In many youth leagues, the diamond is smaller and the pitchers and infielders are closer to the batter.
"For us, the main thing with this new bat is balls aren't coming off the bat as fast," Richardson said. "So now we won't be afraid to bring that 10-year-old and put him in the infield."
Pete D'Antuono, director of operations for the Ellicott City-based Mid-Atlantic Baseball Association, also applauded the new standard
"Some of these metal bats are getting a little ridiculous," he said. But his travel league isn't adopting the new standard until next year to give parents more time to buy new bats.
USA Baseball and the trade association that represents such bat makers as Louisville Slugger, Easton and Rawlings say safety did not figure into the decision to make the switch.
The new bats are "a little less powerful," said Mike May, director of the baseball/softball council of the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. But he said there is no evidence that the previous versions were dangerous.
"Youth baseball — as it was — was a very safe experience," May said.
Cities and states across the country have considered banning metal bats after fielders were seriously injured by batted balls.
The New York City Council banned metal bats from high school baseball games a decade ago, citing safety concerns. USA Baseball, bat manufacturers, coaches and others sued, arguing that the council had overreached its authority. A federal judge upheld the ordinance.
New Mexico also bans metal bats in high school games, but permits them in practice.
Metal bats became popular in youth and amateur leagues in the 1970s, and remain dominant at those levels. They may be made of aluminum but also composite materials such as plastics and carbon fiber.
Wood bats are typically made of maple, ash, and birch. Some high-level amateur leagues — notably the Cape Cod League and the California Collegiate League — require wood bats, to showcase college players for pro scouts.
Advocates for metal bats say they're easier to swing and more durable.
"Wood bats typically have their weight in the barrel of the bat, making it harder for young baseball players to put the bat on the ball, which is one of the elements of baseball that make it the most fun," Little League President and CEO Stephen D. Keener said in a statement.
Little League has adopted the new standard for most of its more than 2 million baseball players aged 4 to to 16 nationwide. Little League's softball players are not affected by the change.
USA Baseball says Little League and other member organizations adopted the change voluntarily. Little League offers programs in South Baltimore, Arbutus, Harford County and other Maryland locations. The Babe Ruth League, which is also making the switch, has programs in St. Mary's County, Montgomery County and Washington County.
This change has meant colorful new bats for brothers Taylor Blevins, 11, and Chase Blevins, 9, who happily showed them off recently at the indoor batting cage of Chad Blevins, their father and coach in the Havre de Grace Little League.
The new standards permit a larger barrel size than before: 2 5/8 inches. The bats looked big in the kids' hands.
"It makes it easier for contact," Chad Blevins said. "But it's not jumping off the bat as fast."
Blevins said he spent $600 on his sons' bats.
"This is a concern we are sensitive to," Russell Hartford, director of USA Baseball's "USABat" program, wrote in an email. The organization declined to make officials available for interviews, but responded to questions in writing.
USA Baseball said it announced the switch in August 2015 "to let parents, teams, and leagues know that this change was coming so they have time to prepare for the transition."
Baseball and softball bats at all levels accounted for $182.4 million in U.S. sales in 2017, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.
"This is going to be a big year for youth baseball bat sales," said Tom Cove, the trade group's president and CEO. "Next year we'll go back down way below what we would normally do in a year because you don't buy a new bat every year. In 2020, we'll probably be back to a normal kind of replenishment."
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