Aluminum or Wood?
Ted Williams once said "It ain't the arrow, it's the Indian". Consistent hitting had always been about technique, not equipment. Hitting Guru Mike Epstein, a close friend of Williams, added that “A baseball bat is one item that doesn't come with directions. Players must be taught how to use it." Many top hitting coaches agree that hitting technique is best taught using heavier wooden bats because they are less forgiving, require the use of the hips and legs, not just the arms (as with lighter aluminum bats), translating into better mechanics.
The initial reason for the switch from wood to aluminum was cost. Wooden bats cracked easily, requiring teams to restock. I am old enough to remember a teammate breaking my favorite Nellie Fox model, the one with the thicker handle; it happened a lot. Al Kaline, Stan Musial models, all reduced to shattered debris with one unlucky swing. The bats were inexpensive back then and because we shared, we managed to get complete games in.
By the time my own children began playing baseball in the mid 90's, aluminum had replaced wood. I was skeptical. The coaches said it was a cheaper alternative, that aluminum bats would last forever. After a trip to the local sporting goods store I was shocked; while I wasn't looking, cheap had gotten very expensive...I paid $35 for an entry-level aluminum bat for my eight year-old son (1996).
As he got older the bats got more costly. I was told by those selling them that "aluminum is expensive". I am a cyclist and could buy an entire aluminum bicycle frame that had to be aligned, tig welded, threaded, and painted for less than a youth baseball bat! Who was fooling who? The bats had a one year guarantee, but there were warnings about using them in temperatures below 60 degrees. Here in New England 50 degrees is baseball weather...
The early aluminum bats dimpled easily and even a perfect swing might yield a donk, and a weakly batted ball .Then came Scandium and Titanium, more expensive materials that hardened the bats, prompting manufactures to boast “30 more feet!" A friend of my son’s received a bat on his 12th birthday that cost $200! This kid was an excellent baseball player and with his new bat, he was even better. By then I was coaching and during warm-ups I once used it to hit outfield. I couldn't keep the balls in the field; even one-arm, half swings were traveling over the 200 foot fence.
Another kid’s Dad was wealthy and he and his wife did little to hide it. He drove a Jaguar and they lived in a very large home in an upscale neighborhood. He bought his son the very best aluminum bats. He would arrive at the baseball complex with several bats zipped inside a fancy bat bag. After his son used a bat it was quickly put away and never shared with any teammates. I noticed that the kids with the more expensive aluminum bats hit the ball further, their economics providing them with an extreme advantage.
The bat controversy got more complicated when aluminum bats were categorized by their length and weight and assigned minus numbers. A 30" bat that weighed 18 ounces (30-18=12) was labeled a minus 12 (-12). The league established rules governing the length and weight of the bats allowed, by age group. Even barrel diameter was dictated by the rules (2-1/4", 2-5/8", and 2-3/4"). As with all rules, there was cheating. Bats were doctored, illegal bats were used and teams that got away unnoticed hit up and down their lineups.
After Scandium and Titanium came Composites. Carbon fiber used for the barrel of the bat in conjunction with aluminum handles, produced "Whip", a term that grew to mean increased bat speed, energy transfer and distance. Bats with names like "Stealth", "Vexxum", “Nitro”, and “Laser” filled bat bags across the country. Nike claimed its “Aero Torque” was designed to “maximize the explosiveness of bat/ball collision”.
The current trend is towards 100% composite bats. With names like “Virus”, “Freak”, and “Mayhem”, these bats sell in the $300-$400 range! If a player wants to be competitive, he or she better be swinging the latest and greatest.
In an effort to protect pitchers and corner infielders, and to keep the balls in the park, as the players get older the bat’s length to weight gets closer, producing smaller minus numbers and heavier bats. By age fourteen only -8’s can be used, and at all high school levels, only -3's are allowed. At one indoor tryout, a freshman baseball player snuck a -8 by the coaching staff. Inside the batting cage, using a pitching machine that can’t simulate release point, and only shoots fastballs, bat speed is important. The player using the -8 looked quicker to the ball when compared to his potential teammates who were swinging -3's, a heavier bat by 5 ounces. He had procured an unfair advantage and as a result of his hitting display, made the team.
The high end aluminum bat market provides the more affluent players with better equipment. These lightweight aluminum bats permit the use of poor hitting techniques (arm swings). The greatest concern however, is that balls hit by hardened aluminum bats are redirected towards the field of play at higher speeds than wooden bats and are a danger to pitchers and corner infielders, especially on youth diamonds.
By saying no to aluminum, Youth Baseball Organizations and High School Athletic Associations would be forced to teach better hitting mechanics, be protecting pitchers and corner infielders from batted balls, keep economic advantages from determining outcomes, and prevent greedy manufacturers from cashing in on the hitting frenzy.
In the end “Teddy Ballgame” had it right; it shouldn’t be about the arrow…