Sam Donnellon: Banning metal baseball bats wood be a good idea

THE HEADLINE WAS compelling for several reasons. A mother and father from my hometown of Wayne, N.J., had filed suit against metal bat manufacturer Hillerich & Bradsby and Little League baseball after their son was left brain damaged from a batted ball.

Joseph and Nancy Domalewski also named The Sports Authority in their product-liability lawsuit filed Monday in state Superior Court in Paterson (where my mom once worked), recharging a debate over the use of metal bats in youth leagues, and the technology used in making them lighter, faster and possibly more dangerous.

The bat manufacturer denied the claims almost immediately and Little League president Stephen D. Keener - whose organization approved the bat as being safe - repeated Little League's long-held stand that there is no evidence metal bats are more dangerous than those made of wood.

Other than what your eyes tell you, that is.

Among parents who follow their sons or daughters from T-ball to American Legion, the evidence overwhelms the debate, makes it silly, really. Ask pro scouts faced with the challenge of determining a college player's true power and true stroke whether metal is the same as wood. It's one big reason why the Cape Cod League - a summer wood-bat league for college-level players - has increased in importance over the years.

The ball jumps off metal bats. It travels farther. The sweet spot is bigger and sweeter. It's why manufacturers tinker with them, why Little League sets standards in an attempt to mimic the weight and characteristics of wood. Citing a decrease of injuries over the years, the manufacturers and Little League have claimed success, even if the empirical evidence suggests otherwise.

Steven Domalewski was on the mound in a 2006 Wayne Police Athletic League game when the ball struck him in the chest and caused his heart to stop - a condition known as commotio cordis. A coma was induced that lasted several weeks, and he emerged unable to speak, or walk on his own.

"His [Steven's] reaction time was compromised because of those bats," his father said during a news conference this week. "Allowing your kid to play with one of those bats is like letting your kid play Russian roulette."

Overstated? Since Domalewski's injury, at least five North Jersey towns have banned metal bats in their youth leagues. On the same day the Domalewski's filed their much-anticipated suit, the New Jersey American College of Cardiology released a statement saying, "Every youth bat used within our state should be built to reduce the speed of baseballs, either through technology or by construction, i.e. wood bats . . .

"By enforcing a low ball-exit speed, we believe players using the enhanced bats have a lower risk of commotio cordis."

Imagine that. Physicians believe their eyes, too.

My sons are about to again take part in a summer wood-bat league, which means the power they and their teammates exhibited in high school will be sapped, and the pitching will get better. The ball that skidded through the infield will now be tracked down, at least some of the time.

And that's at normal baseball dimensions. In Little League, bases are 60 feet apart and the mound a mere 46 feet from home, The ricochet off an metal bat - especially when struck by a kid who has passed through puberty ahead of schedule - often evokes shrieks of horror among those in the stands.

So why does Little League resist calls for a return to wood only? One reason is economics. One metal bat can last a couple of seasons. But cynics have in the past charged Little League with partnering with the bat manufacturers that charge as much as $300 for top model alloys. Hillerich & Bradsby make wood bats as well, but a shift in the proportion would undoubtedly result in higher costs, at least in the short run - and possibly lower profits.

That said, the groundswell of support for good old wood gains with each publicized case like the one in my old hometown. And sooner, rather than later, Little League officials would be well served to put aside their inexact science and trust their eyes, like the rest of us.

The Domalewski family's sad story isn't the first, it's just the latest. And as long as they keep coming, it really doesn't matter whether your heart is in the right place or not. *

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