Debate over use of metal bats is a worthy one

The debate over wood bats versus metal bats comes to Southern California this week. The Diamond Sports National Classic, which begins Monday in Orange County, will use wood bats for the entire tournament at the request of Marin Catholic, which is leading a minirevolt against metal bats.

Marin Catholic decided to use wood bats for the rest of the season after pitcher Gunnar Sandberg was struck in the head by a line drive off a metal bat March 11. He has been in a medically induced coma in the intensive care unit at Marin General Hospital in Greenbrae.

Nine other teams in the Marin County Athletic League voted to ban metal bats for the rest of the season. Pitchers at Novato High have started wearing helmets on the mound during games. Another league in the Bay Area also switched to wood bats.

Adding to the controversy is a March 26 incident in which softball pitcher Kristi Denny of Lake Forest El Toro was struck in the forehead by a batted ball, leading to six hours of surgery. She was wearing a facemask.

Coaches participating in the National Classic were polled, and all agreed to use wood bats. More than 200 are being supplied by Marin Catholic after the school received donations from the San Francisco Giants, Oakland Athletics and other organizations.

That doesn’t mean teams in Southern California are ready to throw away their metal bats.

Steve Gullotti, the tournament director, said coaches wanted to be sympathetic and supportive with what Marin Catholic and Sandberg have been going through. And there’s nothing wrong with a tournament using wood bats, especially when someone is providing the bats.

But switching to wood bats for the playoffs and other regular-season games isn’t going to happen any time soon in Southern California in this period of budget cuts. Wood bats are cheaper than metal bats, but they break often and the cost of supplying them to hundreds of teams in the Southland would be prohibitive.

Of course, if Major League Baseball wants to pay for the wood bats, then that’s a different story.

“If Major League Baseball could provide it, it would be awesome,” Huntington Beach Edison Coach Steve Lambright said. “They could better evaluate players.”

There are new composite wood bats that last much longer than traditional wood bats, which is another reason the tide could be turning against metal.

Players and coaches prefer using wood bats, since that’s the standard for professional baseball. As for safety concerns, the ball definitely jumps off metal bats faster than it does off wood bats, but the NCAA and National Federation of State High School Assns., which are responsible for college and high school baseball rules, haven’t been convinced by research that metal bats should be banned.

The NCAA is changing its standard for metal bats next season, with high school set to follow in 2012. The new bats are supposed to more closely match the performance of wood bats.

Metal bats have been used in high school baseball since the early 1970s.

Pitchers know they can be in danger regardless of whether the batter is using metal or wood.

“Life is full of risks and dangers,” Encino Crespi pitcher Ryon Healy said.

Marin Catholic Principal Chris Valdez said his school launched its “moratorium” on metal bats because it hoped to persuade officials to conduct more research on the dangers of using the equipment.

There will be less scoring and fewer home runs in the National Classic. The games won’t be as long. And if any team thinks it is going to score off Edison pitcher Henry Owens (5-0) with wood bats, good luck.

At a minimum, Marin Catholic is forcing people to take another look at safety issues with metal bats, and there’s nothing wrong with that.