Non-wood baseball bats: The view from a veteran high-school coach

 Despite the fact that the California Legislature has no background or expertise in high school athletics and its many rules, its members are being asked to pass judgment on the use of non-wood bats in high school baseball games.  AB 7 (Huffman), now before the State Senate, would prohibit the use of non-wood bats in high school baseball in California for one year, effective on January 1, 2011.

I have coached high school baseball for 40 years in our great state. I have coached with wood bats and non-wood bats.  I know there are safety concerns with all baseball bats.  I also know that long before this bill, the sports community responded to those safety concerns with robust and science-based regulations.  

The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) and the California Interscholastic Federation set the rules and regulations for sports in California. They have the knowledge and experience to recognize a legitimate area of concern and fashion an appropriate response. And when it comes to the safety of the equipment, like bats, they impose rigorous standards developed by scientists convened by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).  

Nearly a decade ago, the NCAA passed (and the NFHS adopted) bat standards that mandate that non-wood bats be equivalent to wood bats. And a new standard takes effect in 2011 for college and 2012 for high school that will make non-wood bats more like wood.  

All of us in baseball have seen pitchers hit by balls hit off a wood and a non-wood bat. The central question is whether a ball hit off a non-wood bat is more dangerous than a ball off a wood bat.  That is what the NCAA standard is all about: making sure that the non-wood bat is no more dangerous than the wood bat.  If the standard ensures that a wood bat and non-wood bat are equally safe, then there is no reason for the Legislature to even consider putting a moratorium on non-wood bats.  

AB 7 also introduces a new safety issue by requiring only wood bats to be used for 2011.  Wood bats shatter, creating countless more opportunities for injury compared to the very rare line-drive up the middle.

The Senate also must consider the cost of replacing the non-wood bats with wood in these tough financial times. Whether a school or parents buy the bats, the cost for the initial wood bat plus the cost of replacing broken wood bats during the season will result in a hardship for everyone.  

An estimated 42,000 high schoolers play baseball in California.  Approximately 5 or 6 wood bats are used per season per player. At a cost of about $50 each, the bats will cost $250 to $300 per player. The overall cost across the state for this one-year is $10,500,000 to $12,600,000 for just the regular season. How many parents in East Los Angeles, how many school districts after yearly budget cuts can afford to replace every single one of their bats? 

 There is a reason why non-wood bats are desirable for high school baseball.  Students enjoy playing the game more because non-wood bats allow them to be more successful players.  

The joy of hitting a ball to the outfield fence will be replaced with frustration. Kids may drop out of baseball because it becomes too difficult a problem to overcome.  The great game of high school baseball will change for the worse for a lot of players, all because someone thought the Legislature knew baseball better than the experts.  

AB 7 is just the beginning.  If this bill is allowed to become law, every time there is an injury in a sport, the Legislature will feel justified to come in and, over the objections of the experts, prohibit something else.

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