John Carroll's K.J. Hockaday set the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association career record for home runs this season with 31. It could be a record that stands for a long time. Next season Maryland, like the rest of the country, will follow the new regulations set forth by the National Federation of State High School Associations' baseball rules committee and outlaw the use of the current aluminum bat.
In its place will be a bat that must meet the Batted Ball Coefficient of Restitution (BBCOR) performance standard that makes the bat's composite core less powerful and more like wood bats. Research by the NFSH showed aluminum bats became more powerful, and had a greater rebound impact with increased use.
"The new bats are like hitting with a dead aluminum bat," said Hockaday, who has a scholarship to Maryland next year and has been drafted by the Orioles. Colleges have already made the change to the BBCOR bats, and teams complained this season that the bat's power is about a third of what it was in past years.
"It will mean a tougher time for hitting home runs and it will mean it will be tougher to break my record," Hockaday said. "But that doesn't make me happy. I hope some kid does break my record. It was a wonderful high school experience for me and I hope one day another kid — hopefully from my old team — gets to have the same experience I did."
There is no unified approach to next season's bat implementation among Maryland high schools. In Howard County, coordinator of athletics Mike Williams said there "won't be a system-wide [county] decision" on what bat to use. There is a list of NFSH-sanctioned bats and each player is responsible for buying his own bat. Wood bats are legal and always have been, but until this rule change the wood bat was not competitive — from a power standpoint — with the aluminum bat.
There is the issue of cost. A good composite bat will cost in the neighborhood of $300 and won't break, while a good wood bat is priced from $80 to $90, but a player could go through as many as three or more a season.
"What we're trying to do is organize a testing session at Oakland Mills High School where manufacturers can bring their approved bats — composite and wood — and kids can try them out," said Williams, who hopes the date will be set sometime in September. "And if they decide to purchase them that day, they'll get a discount."
In Baltimore County, athletics coordinator Ron Belinko said trying to keep up with the bat issue is a major headache for everyone.
"If we're moving to wooden bats, let's just do it," he said. "But in Baltimore County, we're not taking that step on our own. What we're doing is suggesting each kid check with his coach to make sure he is buying a nationally approved bat before he makes the purchase."
Ned Sparks, executive director of the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association, said it would be presumptuous for the state organization to go beyond the national recommendations.
"The bottom line is we follow the National Federation rules," Sparks said. "Everyone in the country has had an opportunity to weigh in, through committee representatives, and then they have the benefit of extensive testing laboratories. It's a pretty strong and creditable group writing the rules.
"When aluminum bats were first introduced 40 years ago, they were a cost-saving element. Then the manufacturers got in an arms race to see who could create the most pop and then the questions became, are they dangerous? What is the reaction time of the third baseman and the pitcher [to get out of the way]? And was the power taking the competitive edge out of how far the ball could be hit? They were also getting more expensive. Maybe in 10 more years we will have gone full circle and be back to all wood. Who knows?"
Former professional player Larry Sheets, who coaches Gilman, said he has suggested to the MIAA that it simply go directly to wood bats.
"I'm all for whatever makes the game safer for the kids," said Sheets, a former Oriole, who like everyone in Major League Baseball played with the wood bat in the pros. "The BBCOR acts very much like a wood bat, so why not just go to the wood bat? I've made the recommendation and I hope we will vote on it at a future meeting."
At Calvert Hall, where Lou Eckerl's team set an MIAA team record for home runs with 56 this season, the Cardinals coach said he has mixed feelings. He is for improved safety, but sees the unintended secondary effects of cutting batting averages, home runs and eliminating the big inning as less than desirable.
"I'm old enough to remember playing with a wood bat," he said. "And I'm for anything that makes the game safer. But if it means fewer home runs, I'm not for that. It's a big part of the excitement of the game. It's why we have fences. But, it could be we have to vote on using wood. A lot of our kids play in wood-bat tournaments in the summer."
As for Hockaday and what he's thinking about next year at Maryland where he will deal with the same dilemma on a larger stage, he's already made a decision.
"Personally, I've swung both and wood has way more pop," he said. "I think [the new rules are] going to bring back an old tradition."