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SBJ/September 14 - 20, 1998/No Topic Name
NCAA may disable high-tech 'lumber'
Published September 14, 1998
Andy Lopez speaks frankly when he's asked whether bat technology has outrun the confines of college baseball, and whether coaches from top-line programs are willing to speak up and do something about it.
"As college coaches, we have financial responsibilities that we're trying to meet, so you walk a very tight line," said Lopez, baseball coach at the University of Florida, who is paid more than $10,000 annually by Louisville Slugger so that his team will use its bats. "The baseball coach in me says that I don't want to see the national title determined in a 21-14 game [as it was this year]. But the husband and father of four in me says I don't want to see the bat companies go away.
"That's just the reality of life. We don't make the money that other coaches [in other sports] make. So there are some of us who say don't play with the bat companies.
"The response you get from coaches is going to be a little tinted."
The metal bat debate never has raged more fiercely than it has this summer. The NCAA passed rules in July to limit bat potency, outlawing technological advances made by bat companies in recent years, as they've shifted to lighter, more resilient alloys.
Though the advances have figured into, if not been the catalyst for, radical changes in the way college baseball is played, coaches have been slow to criticize the new technology. Many observers say they fear repercussions from bat companies that supplement their income and shoulder expenses for their programs.
Recently, though, the offensive juggernaut rolled too far, and did so on the college game's center stage. Teams combined for 62 home runs at this year's College World Series in Omaha, Neb., obliterating the record of 48 set in 1995. When Southern Cal beat Arizona State 21-14 in the championship game, many purists, including some coaches, decided they'd seen enough.
Though the baseball committee
couldn't find evidence to show the newer bats were dangerous, it had plenty that said they were radically changing the game. At Florida, a team had never hit more than 86 homers in a season. This year, the Gators hit 132. They made the College World Series, scored 13 runs in their first game and 10 in their second ...and lost both.
"I don't think anybody wants to continue with the scores going the way they are," said Lopez, who took Pepperdine University to a national championship in 1992 on the strength of a bully pitching staff. "I'm not shy about saying it. If Louisville Slugger gets upset, so be it."
One manufacturer, Easton Sports Inc. of Van Nuys, Calif., is upset enough that it filed a $267 million lawsuit alleging restraint of trade.
The bat manufacturers' gripe is twofold: that the NCAA is restricting them without evidence that their product is dangerous or is the reason for increased scoring, and that by moving so rapidly, it will leave bat companies with warehouses filled with equipment that can't be sold.
The NCAA buffered the latter of those contentions when it pushed the change back to the 2000 season. The NCAA's baseball committee had recommended changing the rules in time for the coming season. Though Easton is pleased the NCAA is easing its deadline, the company has not dropped its lawsuit.
Performance is only half the issue.
"You have a performance issue on one side and a safety issue on the other," said Dr. Barry Goldberg, director of sports medicine at Yale University and chairman of the medical safety panel for USA Baseball, the sanctioning body for amateur baseball in the United States. "It may be exciting to watch people hit a ball 600 feet. However, there's a price. The price is that the potential for injury may be greater if the ball is moving faster.
"I can't imagine how you're not going to have a faster ball coming off these bats."
Bat manufacturers counter that the NCAA's own surveys show that baseball is among its safest sports. But that
doesn't negate the anecdotal evidence that continues to pour forth from ball fields across the country, where pitchers are losing teeth.
"It's not that some evidence is anecdotal," Goldberg said. "It's all anecdotal. What I've seen, heard, witnessed and think. Everybody is entitled to their opinion. But we'd like to see something more."
Decisions made at the college level can have wide impact. High school associations often follow the lead of
colleges, and youth leagues could fall
in behind high schools, in essence smothering the market for aluminum bats.
Bat making is an immense industry, a $115 million-a-year market in which aluminum accounts for 90 percent of retail sales, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers of America.
Amateur baseball's organizers have difficulty viewing the bat manufacturers as suppliers, rather than partners, particularly considering their ties to the coaching profession.
Said Lopez: "I don't care if the bat companies want to give me $10 million a year. I'd still have to sit back and be honest and say, 'How did that guy who's 5-9 hit an opposite-field home run that far?' An opposite-field home run used to be something special. You had to have power to go the opposite way. Nowadays, you see them all the time. That's what made me scratch my head and wonder where this game is going."