NCAA Mutes the Bats


Are the days of “gorilla ball” in college baseball numbered?

The NCAA on Wednesday approved rule changes designed to reduce the performance of aluminum bats and take some of the firepower out of the home run derbies of recent years, effective in the 2000 season.

The change calls for bats to produce batted-ball speeds of no more than 93 mph. In the past, there had been no limit and speeds of up to 113 mph have been recorded.

A bat’s diameter also cannot exceed 2 5/8 inches, a decrease of an eighth of an inch; and its length-to-weight differential cannot exceed three. A 34-inch bat may weigh no less than 31 ounces without the grip. Under the old rules, players have been able to use so-called “minus-five” bats, which allow a greater differential.


The baseball rules committee had recommended the changes in specifications take effect at the start of next season, but the NCAA’s Executive Committee delayed the change until Aug. 1, 1999, to assure proper testing and to make sure new bats could be available.

The issue might still be headed to a court test before it is resolved.

A leading bat manufacturer--Easton Sports Inc. of Van Nuys--filed a $267-million suit last week alleging unlawful restraint of trade. Jim Easton, president of Easton, had said the rule change could make existing bats--about 1.3 million of them, worth $140 million, including manufacturers’ inventory--obsolete.

In a prepared statement, Easton said Wednesday he was “encouraged” by the NCAA’s decision to delay enforcement of the guidelines, but was “not prepared to discuss the status” of the suit until the company receives specific details from the NCAA, including how bat performance tests would be conducted.

Caught in the middle are many college coaches who would like to see more balance between pitching and hitting, but who also depend heavily on the bat manufacturers for financial support of their programs.

“If the rule change accomplishes what we want it to accomplish, then it will be a great thing,” Cal State Fullerton Coach George Horton said. “But if it’s still a distorted game, that’s another matter.”

Horton’s chief concern is the effect the rule change could have on the manufacturers, and, in turn, on the colleges. “The bat manufacturers have been very good to us and to college baseball in general,” he said. “We don’t have to buy any bats now, and that’s a big plus for our program in this day of reduced budgets.”


Long Beach State Coach Dave Snow expressed similar concerns. “I don’t want to see the bat companies lose thousands of dollars, but wanting to get more balance in the game is a legitimate thing,” he said.

About 150 Division I coaches also have endorsement contracts with bat companies that supplement their incomes.

Horton said it was unrealistic to expect companies to have the new bats ready for the 1999 season. “But something has to be done about the safety issue, and something has to be done about turning the game back into a baseball event rather than a home run event,” Horton said.

The NCAA rules committee pointed to a 54% rise in team home run averages since 1994 as one reason for a change. Offensive production has greatly increased since the NCAA switched from wood to aluminum bats in 1974. Batting averages have soared from .266 in 1973 to .304 in 1997, though they have not fluctuated much since reaching .306 in 1985. But there also has been growing concern about the danger to pitchers by balls being hit back to the mound by high-powered bats.

Dave Keilitz, executive director of the American Baseball Coaches Assn., says his group has supported a reduction in bat performance since 1996.

“Our board has proposed that the standard be similar to that of a wood bat in terms of performance,” Keilitz said. “We took another survey of 16 coaches at all levels in the last year, and they all felt changes had to be made.”


Keilitz said his group originally proposed a change for the 2000 season. “We weren’t sure it could happen for the 1999 season, but to do it in the year 2000 satisfies a lot of concerns,” he said.

USC Coach Mike Gillespie said he believes the rush to change might have been a bit of “a knee-jerk reaction” to this year’s College World Series, which was won by the Trojans. A record 62 home runs were hit this year at Omaha, shattering the old mark of 48 in 1995. USC hit five home runs in its 21-14 victory over Arizona State in the championship game.

“The fact that there are bigger, stronger guys playing the game today is probably as much a factor as anything,” Gillespie said. “But the World Series is being played in a small park, and the wind was blowing out a lot.”

Snow, whose Long Beach State team also advanced to Omaha last season, said Rosenblatt Stadium’s dimensions have become a factor in the aluminum bat controversy.

“If the World Series were played at our park at Blair Field, I don’t think there would be nearly as many home runs,” he said. “There are a lot of factors that come into play. We had a 3-1 game against Miami in Omaha, so pitching can still dominate a game on any day.”

Gillespie had been worried about beginning fall practice with the old-style bats and then having to replace them with new bats before the season began, but the delay erased that concern. “But generally, I’m OK with a change,” he said. “It’s all relative. As long as we all swing the same types of bats, I’m fine.”


Gillespie says most of his USC players used “minus-four” bats last year, with “only about 35%” using the “minus-five.” Two of Fullerton’s top batters, Aaron Rowand and Pete Fukuhara, used the heavier “minus-three” bats because they felt more comfortable. Horton said heavier bats will make a difference.

“Two ounces is a lot when you’re talking about bat speed,” he said. “Now a hitter can wait a long time before making a decision to swing, and that’s a big advantage. You’ll still see homers, but not quite as many of them. The big, strong players are still going to hit home runs, but some of the other guys might not get as many.”

Brad Cresse, who hit a team-leading 29 home runs last season for Louisiana State, agreed. “Some of the lighter players who have been uppercutting the ball probably won’t be able to reach the fence with the new bat,” Cresse said.

Cresse, who played high school ball at Los Alamitos and Huntington Beach Marina, said he used a 34-inch, 29-ounce bat last season, but hit with a “minus-three” bat in high school. “I don’t think it’s going to affect a guy who can handle the added weight that much,” he said.

College pitchers are certain to welcome taking some of the advantage away from the batters.

“I played in the Alaskan League this summer, and they used a composite wood bat there,” Fullerton pitcher Kirk Saarloos said. “It was a big difference. As a pitcher, I think something needed to be done. Those games that are 24-14 aren’t baseball. That’s a football score.”



Aluminum Bats

NCAA baseball officials approved rule changes--to go into effect after next season--designed to cut the performance of aluminum bats.

* The rules committee recommended that bats can’t produce batted-ball speeds of more than 93 mph. Previously, there was no limit.

* A bat’s diameter cannot exceed 2 5/8 inches, a decrease of 1/8 inch from the previous allowable diameter.

* The bat’s length-to-weight ratio also may not exceed three, under the recommendations. For example, a 34-inch bat couldn’t weigh less than 31 ounces without its grip.