Plastic vs. Metal Cleats: a Gripping Issue

Times Staff Writer

Mike Scyphers is not too thrilled with the current footwear in high school baseball.

"To put it bluntly," Scyphers, the coach at Simi Valley High, said, "plastic cleats are a joke."

It's a joke no one is laughing about.

"Plastic cleats are horrible," Granada Hills Coach Darryl Stroh said. "They are dangerous. . . . I guarantee you there have been more serious injuries as a result of plastic cleats than because of metal cleats."

Most baseball coaches in the Valley say they would like nothing better than to have their players return to wearing shoes with metal spikes in them.

"At our level of play," San Fernando Coach Steve Marden said, "we have to prepare our kids to play at the major league level. Some kids do get drafted right out of high school. We do them a discredit by not letting them use the equipment they'll be using there.

"There's no doubt we ought to go back to metal cleats."

The question of whether high school baseball players in California will be allowed to wear spikes again will be addressed in October.

At that time, the State Federation Council will consider a proposal from the CIF's Southern Section that California make the use of metal cleats for baseball optional, beginning with the 1987 season. The Council is composed of representatives from the 10 different sections in the California Interscholastic Federation.

Spikes have been banned from high school baseball in California since the 1984 season. A decision by the National High School Federation to move from metal to plastic and rubber was designed to eliminate the threat of spike wounds.

In 1980, the federation sent questionnaires to about 20,000 high school baseball coaches and umpires around the country. One question asked respondents whether they had seen an injury as a result of metal cleats in the past five years.

Of those who returned the questionnaire, 4,027 answered no and 1,349 answered yes. Despite a nearly 4-1 ratio in favor of those who had not seen spikes-related injuries, the federations's rules committee adopted a rule prohibiting metal cleats in high school baseball. The rule went into effect in 1984.

But instead of a reduction in injuries, plastic cleats have caused an increase, according to coaches.

A common complaint is that players are slipping on the bases while wearing the plastic cleats, especially at home plate. Pitchers are having problems planting their front foot. Players cannot get proper footing on grass, especially when it gets wet.

"Plastic cleats are brutal," Granada Hills shortstop Greg Fowble said. "You can't get any grip into the ground, you're sliding all around. I find it very difficult to make a play in the hole, set your feet and make a strong throw."

Scyphers said he has never seen an injury related to metal spikes in his eight years of coaching. But he has seen a major injury as a result of plastic.

Early in the 1984 season, Simi Valley's best player, Brian Sliwoski, was leading off first base when he moved back to the bag on a pick-off play. His foot slipped, forcing Sliwoski to reach down for the base. The awkward move resulted in a dislocated shoulder.

"We pretty much lost him for the season," Scyphers said.

Last season, Sylmar's No. 1 pitcher, Joe Hiner, fractured his right ankle and tore ankle ligaments when he hit home plate and slipped.

"The metal cleats hold up much better," Sylmar Coach John Klitsner said. "They are much more secure when they make contact with a base."

Chatsworth Coach Bob Lofrano lost one of his pitchers in 1976 when he was spiked on the heel while covering first base. Still, Lofrano would like a return to metal.

"A kid hits home plate, skids and sprains an ankle," Lofrano said. "It's silly to have that happen."

Some coaches aren't convinced that the move to plastic has caused a decrease in injuries when runner meets fielder.

"I've seen kids get cut up with plastic cleats, too," Grant's Tom Lucero said.

Another problem with the plastic cleats, coaches say, is their lack of durability.

"By this time of the year," said Marden of San Fernando, "the plastic cleats are worn down and pretty worthless. So the kids have to buy two, three pairs a year. Metal cleats can last a full year with no problem."

Both Scyphers and Lofrano said their players wear spikes during practice.

The national federation won't decide whether to go back to metal spikes until next year--and even then a change may not be made.

Brad Rumble, the national rules editor for baseball for the federation, said that data is being collected on the issue of plastic cleats.

All that information will be presented to the rules committee next year.

"If the committee believes that non-metal cleats are causing a significant number of injuries, then they will consider changing the rule," Rumble said from the federation's offices in Kansas City. "If not, then I can't see where the rule will change.

"We're monitoring the situation. We're not turning our backs on this."

When the no-spikes rule was put in, several states turned their backs on the federation.

Rumble said that Arizona, Indiana, Oklahoma and Texas chose not to comply with the rule when it was first adopted. Alabama, New Mexico and Nevada have since gone back to spikes, he added.

"We're not like the NCAA," Rumble said. "We're simply a service organization. We're authorized by our members to propagate rules. But the states don't have to use the rules. They can waive, modify, do whatever they want to the rules. They don't need permission."

Because of that, Rumble said, the federation may not know which states are using spikes and which are using plastic.

The move to non-metal, Rumble added, was done strictly for safety. He pointed out that several levels of baseball and softball have played with non-metal cleats for several years.

"Traditional coaches are upset," Rumble said, "because metal cleats are something they've grown up with."

Kennedy Coach Dick Whitney, one of the few coaches who has no problems with the plastic cleats, agreed.

"Some of the old die-hard guys want to go back. But I'm not a big advocate of going back."

Stroh, for one, definitely is.

"It seems to me," he said, "a lot of rule changes are not benefitting the game."

Stroh pointed out as examples rules that have taken out the appeal play and forced base coaches to wear helmets.

"Every year it's something," he said. "We're making it a sissy's game."

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