Changes to high school baseball's soundtrack considered

The sound of metal bats pinging at high school baseball fields could soon be replaced by the crack of wood bats if the U.S. Senate passes Assembly Bill 7.

State Assemblyman Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) proposed AB 7, also known as the High School Baseball Safety Act, which seeks to place a one-year moratorium on metal bats in high school baseball for the 2011 season. The moratorium would provide time to review and possibly revise safety standards in bats.

AB 7 was written in response to an incident at a high school baseball game in March. Gunnar Sandberg, a 16-year-old pitcher at Marin Catholic High Schoolwas struck in the head by a line drive hit off a metal bat.

"This tragedy is a wake-up call," Huffman said in a news release. "It's time to seriously consider the safety of allowing kids to use performance-enhancing metal bats with the pitcher standing just 60 feet away with virtually no protection."

Sandberg survived the incident after being rushed to the hospital for immediate surgery to remove part of his skull so his brain could swell. Although Sandberg was in a coma for more than two weeks after the event, he is no longer in a hospital.

The Senate Education Committee passed AB 7 with little opposition on a 5-1 vote. There is no date set for the Senate to vote on the matter, but it must happen by the end of August.

Dennis Ballard, La Cañada High School's baseball coach, said he has never seen an incident similar to the one in Marin County, just north of San Francisco. He said the sound of the ball coming off a metal bat can be scary, but he doesn't support the legislation for a few reasons, including financial ones.

"It already costs so much money to run a baseball program," Ballard said. "It would be very expensive to use wood bats because they break all the time."

Two of Ballard's baseball players at LCHS, Scott Stetson and Michael Lee, agreed.

"You can buy an aluminum bat and use it for more than two years, but you buy a wood bat and you may not even have it a day before it breaks," soon-to-be senior Stetson said.

Lee, who just graduated from LCHS, said the chances of serious injuries are rare, and they are a risk players knowingly take on when they step on the field.

"I think [the legislation] is unnecessary because they still use aluminum bats in college," Lee said.

The NCAA, while still using metal bats, is changing what kinds of bats can be used. Currently, bats used in college must meet a specific speed ratio standard. This standard determines how fast a ball comes off a bat, based on the length and weight of the bat.

Starting on Jan. 1, NCAA bats must meet new standards that will ensure metal bats used in college are more similar to wood bats.

There are safety precautions players can take to avoid serious injury. There are protective helmets for pitchers to wear, but they have not caught on in baseball at any level.

A whole other issue is raised with wood bats because of their tendency to break and have parts fly toward fielders.

"I don't know how you eliminate all injury possibilities with either bat," Ballard said.

Although Ballard said he doesn't agree with AB 7, he might change his mind if anything happened to his players. He worries about his players at times, especially during batting practice, and about his pitchers during games.

"If using metal bats creates an additional risk of injury or death, as the evidence strongly suggests, then we shouldn't hesitate to err on the side of safety and require our high school athletes to use traditional wooden bats," Huffman said. "The same bats used by the Major League players so many of them admire and aspire to be."

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