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Wood-Bat League Gives Players a Crack at Majors : Baseball: Long Beach-based California Seals play in collegiate summer league that is a throwback to tradition.

June 27, 1991|PAUL McLEOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In just the six doubleheaders in which former Schurr High School catcher Tony Nieto has gone to the plate with a wooden bat, he has learned to appreciate hitting the way it used to be.

"The crack of that bat on the ball. That sound is awesome," said Nieto, who this summer plays for the California Seals of the experimental Los Angeles Basin Collegiate League.

At USC last spring, where he was a freshman, Nieto was accustomed to the pinging sound of rawhide baseballs struck by aluminum bats.

Because they seldom break, aluminum bats have been used almost exclusively in amateur baseball leagues for nearly 20 years. But the eight-team Basin League, headed by Bill Singer, a former pitcher for the Dodgers and Angels, sends hitters to the plate with what some call "a piece of lumber."

The Basin League is modeled after similar leagues in Cape Cod, Mass., and Alaska, where professional scouts flock each summer to evaluate how quickly potential major leaguers adapt to hitting with softer, brittle wooden bats.

"This provides scouts with a real good view of kids," Singer said. "A lot of times it is hard for scouts to judge a kid in a league (with aluminum bats)."

Singer said some funding--although he declined to say how much--was provided for the Basin League by the major leagues, where wood still prevails. A few major league teams donated bats, he said.

Of 13 leagues sanctioned by the National Baseball Congress of Wichita, Kan., eight use wooden bats, according to Lance Deckinger, the organization's coordinator of national development. The Basin League, the only wood-bat league on the West Coast, expects to receive NBC sanctioning soon.

However, Deckinger warned: "I don't see (leagues like this) expanding much more. It's just too expensive to have wooden bats."

Singer says the Basin League will spend between $10,000 and $12,000 for the seven-week season just to replace broken bats, which cost about $30 apiece. Each team began the season with six dozen bats, but Singer admits that is not enough to finish the 28-game season. Players may be supplying their own soon.

Aluminum bats have more economic appeal. They often cost as much as $125, but have staying power. It is not uncommon for a player to use the same aluminum bat throughout an entire collegiate career.

At the annual NBC World Series in August, aluminum bats will be used. Teams from wood-bat leagues that qualify by winning a regional tournament will be forced to switch.

Today's players, like Nieto, 19, were just toddlers in 1973, when colleges and high schools replaced wooden bats with metal counterparts. The move inflated batting and earned-run averages alike.

"Aluminum bats add 30 or 40 points to a batting average," said Seals Coach Paul (Pops) Ivanovsky of Torrance. Ground balls that would die on the grass when struck by wooden bats, which have a smaller sweet spot, often sneak through the infield when hit by aluminum bats, which provide more uniform strength around the barrel.

Singer, who won 20 games with the Dodgers in 1969 and again for the Angels in 1973, said that in the first two weeks of play, Basin League games averaged only 3.5 runs. Batting averages are lower and fielding averages appear to be higher.

"With wood you can't hit the ball so hard," Singer said, "so fielding percentages go up. It's a big adjustment for the kids. Pitchers throw inside more, and the sweet spot on the bats is smaller, so (hitters) need to increase their bat speed."

Still, Pops Ivanovsky, a minor league player who was recalled in 1967 for a brief stay with the San Francisco Giants, has been an advocate of the creation of a wood-bat league for years. He still has the bat with which he hit a 500-foot home run at the old Candlestick Park.

"This league has been a lot of fun, and it has been well received," he said. "We could have had 10 teams this summer if we could have found the coaches."

The Seals play their games at Long Beach City College. Other franchises are in Ontario, San Bernardino, San Diego, Orange County, Riverside and the San Fernando Valley. Rosters are composed mainly of collegiate players who live within driving distance of home fields, although the San Bernardino Indians recruit players from all over the nation.

"If kids have to go away to play baseball, they can't continue school," said Ivanovsky, a longtime proponent of better graduation rates for athletes. "In this league, the (local) kids can stay home or go to summer school or work. If they stay in their own area, they have a better shot at graduation."

The league, which plays doubleheaders every Saturday and Sunday, also showcases players who have graduated but have not been drafted by major league clubs. Former El Rancho High pitcher Ab Pinon, who set a school record with 21 career victories at Cal State Los Angeles, is one of them.

"It's more fun as a pitcher in this wood-bat league because there are no chinky hits like there are with aluminum bats," he said. "I enjoy when I get the chance to break a hitter's bat."

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