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Aluminum vs. wood bats: A difference in safety?
Illinois lawmakers weigh proposed ban on use by children under 13
By Sara Faiwell | Daily Herald Staff

John Knox, 8, of Geneva, hits a baseball with an aluminum bat at a July Geneva Baseball Association Rookie League. A proposed state law would ban aluminum bats for children younger than 13.

 

Jeff Knox | Staff Photographer

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Published: 12/10/2007 12:21 AM

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Go ahead and ask Brian Marquardt what he thinks about the danger of aluminum bats.

Actually, just look at the scar across his head.

The 19-year-old from Wood Dale was seriously injured in 2005 during his high school baseball game. The estimated 105-mph line drive off his opponent's aluminum alloy bat is what did it.

Marquardt, the pitcher, suffered two shattered eye sockets, two cracked nasal cavities, a broken nose and a sunken forehead. He's recovered now, but the scar is a constant reminder.

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Stories like this are what's prompting an Illinois legislator to propose a ban on all aluminum bats for children under age 13.

State Rep. Robert Molaro, a Chicago Democrat, wants to make it unlawful for any coach, parent or teacher to knowingly allow use of an aluminum bat during a recreational baseball or softball game. Adults caught violating the ban would face fines up to $500.

Several local little league directors, coaches and parents say such a ban is unnecessary and that there's no difference between the safety of a wood bat versus that of a metal bat.

But proponents say wood bats are safer because the ball doesn't come off as fast or go as far as those hit off metal bats. Wood bats also are better for teaching children the game, they say.

Gearing up to fight

Phil Rizzo, who runs Little League District 13 -- covering 18 leagues in Bartlett, Hanover Park, Streamwood, South Elgin, Carpentersville and other suburbs -- wants coaches, players and their families to speak out against a state ban on metal bats.

"If we didn't believe it was safe, we would have gone to wooden bats a long time ago," Rizzo said.

He's been involved with youth baseball for nearly 20 years and says no complaints have come up about aluminum bats.

Wood bats reduce hitting averages and break more frequently than metal ones, forcing leagues and families to spend more money buying replacements, he said.

"This bill is a mistake based on bad information," Rizzo said.

Molaro, the lawmaker, played youth baseball and said the idea for his legislation came from parents who've complained to him about metal bat injuries.

"I understand the need to hit it further, faster and get more excitement," he said. "But we have to make it about safety first."

Molaro said he plans to have experts, pro baseball players and others testify in Springfield about the dangers of aluminum bats.

Once players are in high school and college, he said, they can make their own decisions.

"When it comes to a 9-year-old, they don't know any better," says Molaro.

The debate goes on

The aluminum vs. wood debate has raged across the country for years, from Little League to college teams.

Aluminum alloy bats still are the legal and primary choice of athletes at most levels, though only wooden bats are permitted at the professional level.

In October, Pennsylvania lawmakers rejected a ban on non-wood bats. Yet earlier this year, the New York City Council passed a bill that bans the use of metal bats in high school baseball games.

Right now, the only state with any sort of metal bat ban is North Dakota. There, high school teams use wood bats, but that wasn't a decision made by lawmakers; it was high school associations' call.

"Let the leagues decide," said Trent Duffy, spokesman for the national organization Don't Take my Bat Away. "Let's keep the politicians out of it."

That group was formed in response to the number of states trying to legislate the use of bats. There are 4,400 members nationally, and 472 of those are in Illinois.

"People use metal bats because they like them and they make the game more fun," said Duffy, of Washington, D.C. "They perform better than wood or else people wouldn't use them."

In the Chicago suburbs, some baseball officials say they've heard no grumbling about metal bats.

"I am disappointed that something like this needs to be discussed at the state level," said Marty Josten, president of Palatine Youth Baseball and Softball. "You can break wooden bats. You don't break aluminum bats."

In the Schaumburg Athletic Association, there are kids pitching so fast now that it doesn't matter what bat is being used, said baseball president Mark Monti.

"People that use wood bats are just trying to get their kids ready for college baseball and beyond," he said.

A real safety issue?

Dozens of studies comparing the two bats have been done, with mixed results. This year, the first high school baseball field test comparing wood bats to non-wood bats was done in Illinois.

The study, conducted by the Illinois High School Association, concluded that non-wood bats are just as safe as wood bats when it comes to injuries. The study also found that wood bats reduce hitting averages and raise costs because of frequent breakage.

One bat manufacturer said the proposed Illinois law is "needless."

"Obviously the facts show that this is not a safety issue," said Jim Darby, of Easton Sports, based in California.

Statistics on injuries and fatalities due to batted balls are not available. The Consumer Product Safety Commission collected information on fatalities between 1991 and 2001 and reported that 17 players were killed by batted balls -- eight involving metal bats and two wood bats, according to the New York Times. The type of bat was not reported in seven instances.

Ron Cacini, a former player with the Houston Astros organization, is a proponent of a metal bat ban. He runs Play Ball USA, a wood bat training center in Des Plaines.

Cacini believes in wood bats because kids can develop bad habits and a false sense of security with aluminum bats.

"The reason they've become so dangerous is that players don't have enough time to react in such short distances," he said. Many injuries also stem from pitchers not being in the correct fielding position, he said.

Bat companies can make a safer aluminum bat, but it's not happening, Cacini said.

"We're in a society that loves to see home runs," he said. "When it comes to dollars and cents, there's a lot of marketing and money that goes into aluminum bats."

Still, there is evidence to show hits coming off metal bats are harder and faster.

Marquardt, the former high school pitcher who was injured, says aluminum bats should be banned for safety reasons -- especially when you're talking about 8- or 9-year-olds.

"I think it takes something like this to happen to actually realize that it's pretty dangerous," he said.