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THE ALUMINUM REVOLUTION : The wood bat once was the king of swing, but its more durable, metallic counterpart, assailed by baseball purists who balk at its use, has been a hit at the amateur level.

April 17, 1987|GARY KLEIN | Times Staff Writer

Cruise by any baseball field where college, high school or youth teams play and you're bound to hear it. Ping . Sometimes it comes in staccato bursts. Ping . Ping. The sound is unmistakable.

It's Metal Madness.

Just as the electric guitar forever changed the sound of popular music and the way it is played, the aluminum bat has done the same to baseball. Amateur baseball players have been cracking, uh, pinging out hits and home runs for more than a dozen years.

The aluminum revolution was fueled by the bats' cost-saving durability and the added punch they seem to give players at the plate. Coaches also like the bats--typically much lighter than a wood bat of similar length--because they have helped produce more offense, thereby increasing interest in the game.

But not everybody loves them. Some say their added punch, which has given new meaning to the word line-drive, makes the game unsafe for pitchers and infielders. Professional baseball, as anti-metal as John Denver, has always used wood and may never switch. And baseball purists always have thought that aluminum bats should simply be canned.

Just recently, two fellows named Mays and McCovey recycled the ruckus that initially was raised when the bats were introduced in the early '70s. Their comments about metal's deleterious effect on the grand old game gave aluminum advocates a slight case of the Willies.

The former sluggers, with 1,181 career home runs between them, said that the use of aluminum bats at the amateur level has helped reduce the number of power hitters in professional baseball. Their theory is, once a player gets to all-wood pro ball, he still longs for the light feel of aluminum and ends up using a wood bat that not only lacks ping , but also pop.

Whether that is true depends on whom you talk to. And just about everyone involved with baseball has a thing or two to say about aluminum bats.

"The development of offensive baseball has been sensational," said Bob Hiegert, who coached at Cal State Northridge for 18 years and produced two Division II national championships. "The aluminum bat revolutionized the college game because you have men playing with a weapon that is much more productive than wood."

Said former USC and 1984 Olympic Coach Rod Dedeaux: "The aluminum bat drastically alters the game. It's not the game of baseball as we would like to think of it."

Ray Poitivent, who has scouted for 28 years and is a special assistant to General Manager Harry Dalton of the Milwaukee Brewers, is philosophical in discussing the impact of the aluminum bat.

"You just can't change the game and think it's going to be the same."

Baseball hasn't been the same ever since the NCAA Baseball Rules Committee approved the use of aluminum bats and the designated-hitter for the 1974 season. At that time, college baseball was suffering from dwindling attendance at the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., the dominance of a few select teams, and a perceived lack of offense.

USC and Arizona State had won nine of the previous 10 Division I national championships, including eight straight. USC won the title again in 1974, but no college team has repeated as champion since.

Some say it is more than coincidence that parity and the aluminum bat arrived at the same time to the college game, but other factors are more obvious. The NCAA has limited the number of athletic scholarships, which helped disperse talent. Professional teams also began drafting more players from the collegiate ranks, making college programs more attractive to high school players who traditionally opted for the pros right away. Still, there can be no discounting the impact aluminum bats have had on offensive statistics and interest in the college game.

Baseball America magazine conducted a study and found that the overall batting average for Division I schools increased from .282 in 1976 to .293 in 1980 to .306 in 1985. Home run production also was up 70% in the nine-year period.

Hiegert offers his own study as evidence of the bats' impact.

In 1970, before aluminum bats were used, CSUN won the Division II championship with a team that played 64 games, batted .269, hit 32 home runs and had a 2.59 earned-run average. The Matadors won the title again in 1984. This time, using aluminum, they played 65 games, batted .327, hit 71 homers and had a 4.58 ERA.

"You can say players have gotten better, or one team was a better offensive team than the other, but that wasn't necessarily true with those teams," said Hiegert, who is now CSUN's athletic director. "We had two All-Americans on each club and the same amount of players that signed pro contracts. They played on the same field with the exact same dimensions. One team used wood and the other used aluminum. It's not a mystery to me."

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