SBJ/April 27 - May 3, 1998/No Topic Name

Are aluminum bats about to strike out

Easton makes 1.8 million metal baseball bats a year.

Yet losing a customer that purchases bats for use by 500 children and teens was a scary enough blow that the company invited the president and vice president of the Toluca Lake (Calif.) Pony League to its plant to meet with top management after the league decided to abandon aluminum bats in favor of wood earlier this year.

Easton became aware of the league’s decision in February when Sports Illustrated reported that safety concerns prompted Toluca Lake’s board of directors to vote 21-1 in favor of banning metal bats after a 9-year-old pitcher was struck in the head by a line drive off the bat of a 10-year-old.

Soon after the story appeared, Easton officials contracted the Toluca Lake league’s president, Ed Wiley, inviting him to their offices in Van Nuys for a conference and tour. Wiley accepted but wasn’t swayed by Easton’s pitch. The league stood by its vote and will play with wood this season.

"I was so astonished that they put that kind of effort into us," said Wiley, a free-lance TV and film producer.

There’s more at stake here than the business of one league.

Though bat manufacturers insist there is no conclusive evidence that today’s generation of souped-up bats are to blame for injuries, concern among coaches, parents and players clearly is mounting. Baseball organizations ranging from youth leagues to the NCAA keep debating their safety.

Pony baseball will review its bat requirements later this year. USA Baseball, the sport’s governing body for amateurs, is planning to issue a statement on safety standards for bats in July.

"It’s hard for us [USA Baseball] to take a stance on it at this point. But, personally, I’d like to see a study done," said Dr. Barry Goldberg, director of sports medicine at Yale and the chairman of USA Baseball’s medical safety panel.

Metal bats mean about $100 million a year to the sporting goods industry, according to the Sporting goods Manufacturers Association. Easton and Louisville Slugger control about 90 percent of the college market.

All that concern makes but manufacturers cringe.

"They have no statistics, they know nothing except they think [aluminum is dangerous]," said Jim Darby, the Easton vice president who met with the Toluca Lake officials.

Wiley said one Easton official warned him that if Toluca Lake sets in motion a trend, it would be responsible for "the death of youth baseball."

Wiley chuckled at the thought. "Our only concern here is safety," Wiley said. "Maybe they have some other concerns."

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