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The millennium is three years away. Change is everywhere, from ordering dinner on the Internet to the Hubble telescope redefining the boundaries of the solar system.

But some things stay pretty much the same.

Baseball is like that. Equipment improves, players get stronger, but there is still 90 feet between each base and three strikes you're out. And a team never runs out of time to rally; it just runs out of outs.

Most questions on the eve of the 1997 prep baseball season will eventually be answered on the playing field.

Can Canyon, ranked No. 1 in the country in USA Today's preseason poll, survive its rugged schedule and repeat as Southern Section Division II champions? Can Fountain Valley reach the Division I final for a fourth consecutive time?

Will there will be teams that surprise, as Fullerton and El Toro did last year, when the Indians and Chargers won league titles? Will game scores continue to resemble football results, or will pitching begin a comeback?

Most important, how is the game itself?

In the view of several coaches contacted by The Times, the state of the high school game is still a positive one.

Irvine's Bob Flint, Fountain Valley's Ron La Ruffa, La Quinta's Dave Demarest, Sonora's Pat Tellers and Esperanza's Mike Curran have a combined 76 years of experience and have won a total of six section titles.

Each says high school baseball is still fun to play and to coach, and in many ways it is a better game on the field than it was 20 years ago.

"The game has never been better in Orange County with the athletes, the state of facilities and the coaches," La Ruffa said. "Baseball has caught up with football and basketball, as far as organized practices and coaching techniques. We've been catching up for nearly 10 years. There's now a wealth of information that was not there when I was playing."

Said Flint: "It's better because the game is better coached by more people. When I was at Western in 1972, we could plan on picking off eight to 10 runners during the season. Now we're lucky to get one or two because everybody gets coached."

Still, concerns were expressed about where the game is headed.

Troubles start with the growing disparity between hitting and pitching. During this decade, there has been an explosion of offense. According to Prep Extra's statistics, an average of 55 players per season have batted .400 or higher since 1990. In each of the last two seasons, that number has risen to 76.

Runners crossed the plate seemingly in packs last year. There were 11 batters who hit eight or more home runs, and 25 players had at least 30 runs batted in. Heritage Christian's Paul Caffrey had a spectacular sophomore season in 1996, setting county single-season records in batting average (.597) and RBIs (56), and a section record in triples (13).

The coaches say the aluminum bat is the leading contributor.

"They are lethal weapons," Flint said of the bats. "You pick up an aluminum bat, and [its weight] is very balanced, and that means a faster swing. Pick up a wood bat and you feel an immediate difference. All wood bats feel top-heavy after swinging an aluminum bat."

Said Demarest: "The offensive part of the game is out of balance. Today's bats are like tennis rackets, with their bigger sweet spots and even weight distribution. There is no help for pitching, unless you make the mound higher or move pitchers closer."

And La Ruffa added, "It's harder to teach all-around fundamentals when even 140-pound kids can go deep."

But the coaches aren't advocating any rule changes; they say the game responds best when it corrects imbalances naturally.

"I get worried about individuals putting in rules that make things nit-picky," Curran said. "Take the rule where if a pitcher turns a shoulder to look at the baserunner, it's now a balk. That has nothing to do with playing the game, and [high school is] the only level that does it. You hope that is unique and not a trend.

"The name of game is don't take away from the game with too many rules. If you're talking safety, that is one thing. But let's not have guys on the committee who feel they just need to have something going. That stuff bothers me."

And it doesn't immediately address how or when pitching will reclaim its equilibrium.

A generation of pitchers has grown up throwing to aluminum bat-wielding hitters. Despite a greater emphasis on weight training and year-round baseball, Demarest said, "It is evident there has been a decline in the number of power arms." Those are the players who can throw around 90 mph.

So if you can't beat 'em with speed, you have to try finesse. More players have turned to "trick" pitches, such as split-finger fastballs and changeups, to try and upset a batter's timing.

"You don't see as many blue-chip prospects among throwers now," Tellers said. "Overall, pitching has gone down. I'm hoping it's just a cycle, but I don't know. Offense has jumped. We hit .402 as a team last year, and .397 in 1995 . . . that is high.

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