Sunday, July 20, 2003

High-tech softball bats add power, danger

Furor hits home for Metro tourney

By Ryan Ernst
The Cincinnati Enquirer

In the world of summer softball, a new breed of bat is transforming the game.

Call it the Superbat.

The Genesis softball bat, by Louisville Slugger, is one of several new bats that greatly increase a ball's speed and distance and are banned by the Cincinnati Metro Tournament. Ryan McGreevy of Covedale had one Friday night at the Eggleston Softball Complex.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
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With these bats, balls can be hit in excess of 110 mph at pitchers standing 50 to 55 feet away. Balls can be hit farther by players of all sizes, who become instant home run threats. Teams at some tournaments are combining for more than 100 runs in a game. A pitcher in Indiana was killed last year.

The high-tech bats are the hottest issue in softball, and at the center of the heat is Danney Saylor and the event he organizes, the Cincinnati Metro Tournament.

Saylor, Cincinnati's Amateur Softball Association commissioner, has banned several new high-tech bats he considers unsafe for players and a threat to the integrity of the competition.

Saylor runs what he calls "the biggest softball tournament on the planet" from his Rumpke Park office in Crosby Township. The event, in its 51st year, opens Thursday and runs through Aug. 5. It is one of the city's biggest summer recreational events, involving close to 400 teams and more than 5,000 players, umpires and volunteers.

But because of the banned bats, for the second straight year the event will not be sanctioned by the Amateur Softball Association, the sport's governing body by act of Congress. Teams winning this year's Metro will not receive an automatic bid to the national tournament, though some could still be invited.

Saylor, who has been involved with softball for 27 years and estimates he's seen more than 250,000 games, says:

"Softball is made for an average guy, to get with nine other average guys, go to a ballpark and play 10 other average guys, have a good time, win or lose - hopefully win. But, more importantly, have a beer or a Coke and have a laugh afterward and talk about it. And I think we've lost our way."

To combat the problem, Saylor was willing to go out on a limb - even if it meant alienating the Amateur Softball Association, his association. For the Metro, he said, it was necessary to protect the young to middle-age men who participate and to protect the spirit of competition.

"Last year our committee sat down and decided that if we didn't do anything, we knew in advance who would win our Metro - the 50th Metro, the grandest tournament in the country," he says. "We knew who would win the Major (Division), the A, the B, the C and the D. The winner of all those divisions would have been the bats."


Not 'tackling the monster'

The losers, many say, are undoubtedly the pitchers.

"I hate pitching anymore," says Chuck Johns, a 44-year-old utility man of Perkins Roofing, last year's Majors champion in the Metro. "You have no prayer of catching some of the balls. ... If it's hit right at you and you have bad reflexes, you're in trouble."

Johns can imagine what it would feel like to be hit by a batted ball while pitching, when he's 55 feet away when the ball is hit, but he'd rather not. Last year during a team batting practice, he was 200 feet from home plate, putting balls into a bag, when a line drive fractured his cheekbone in four places.

"Imagine if I was pitching - I wouldn't be here today," he says.

Leo Osterday was named Player of the Decade for the 1980s by Cincinnati Softball News. He's in the Hudepohl Softball Hall of Fame. He's 51 years old and he will play in this year's Metro, as a pitcher.

"I've got drilled a couple times because you can't react fast enough. They should outlaw all these new bats," Osterday says. "There is fear, against certain batters. When they come up, you're scared to death. ... It's the first time in my life when I'm playing that at certain times I'm scared. And I hate saying that, because I ain't scared of nothin'."

To relieve fear and cut down on injuries, in years past some associations and ballparks have experimented with moving back the pitcher's mound, traditionally 50 feet. Others have moved bases back.

Opponents of the changes say moving the pitcher's mound makes it harder to throw strikes and moving the bases makes it harder to get hits. Going to a deader ball has seemed to help at some Tristate parks.

"Small dents," Saylor says, "because it's such a big problem ... We are making all the moves other than tackling the monster itself and taking it to its knees. Those are Band-Aids on the real problem. We never fixed the real problem."

To take the emphasis away from home runs, some suggest moving back fences. But at Rumpke Park, new field dimensions would put Ohio 128 and two farmers' fields into play. Most parks have the same problem. And most agree that technology eventually would conquer the new dimensions.

'Hottest' brands

The bats that sparked this year's controversy, the ones banned by Saylor in addition to Amateur Softball Association's list, are Louisville Slugger's Genesis, Easton's Synergy and Miken's Ultra II. The Synergy and Ultra II are widely considered to be the "hottest," a term for most productive, bats on the market.

Easton and Miken wouldn't comment for this story. Louisville Slugger did not return phone calls.

Of all the "hot" bats, the Ultra II is the lightning rod for the bat-banning controversy, and it has plenty of people talking:

• "No thinking, caring person would want to put that piece of equipment into a softball game," says Mark Linnemann, editor and publisher of Cincinnati Softball News

• "We were playing a C team last week and they had a Miken. We lost. We got out-Mikened. I've seen people hit it over 400 feet, " Johns says.

• "It's head and shoulders above the rest. It won't pass our new test for next year," says Tony Laws, chairman of the Amateur Softball Association testing and equipment certification committee.

The bat retails between $300 and $320. The United States Specialty Sports Association never received the bat from Miken for testing, thus it is ineligible for sanctioned play in that group, though it was approved for play in the Amateur Softball Association this year.

But the bat's freakish performance was too much for Saylor to overlook, despite his association's views to the contrary.

"Last year when I called the national office when this new Miken hit the streets, (they said) 'Uhhhh, it passed our test.' 'How?' 'Uhhhh, well it passed our test,' " Saylor says. "'Well then get the guys out of the laboratory and fly them here. I want them to watch the 5-foot-5 guys I got out here trimming my trees. Then they'll know, it can't be.'"

The Enquirer contacted Miken president Pete Griffith for this story, but he wouldn't comment.

Knives in a gunfight

Saylor hosted a forum on the subject before he banned any bats for this year's Metro. The response was mixed. Dave Wilkins of Total Package Express, a B team, attended the discussion.

"I don't think they're dangerous, especially with the dead balls they're using now," Wilkins says. "Now they take the bats, too. They've gone too much the other way. I can see them being banned in the lower leagues, but guys in the higher leagues know how to react (in the field) better."

The problem many players, managers and sponsors face is not so much the banning of bats, but the discrepancies between sanctioning bodies. The Amateur Softball Association, United States Specialty Sports Association, National Softball Association and International Softball Association all have their own lists of approved bats - and each is different.

"I'm just not quite sure how there can be inconsistencies between associations," says Dave Watanabe, manager of Watanabe Optical. "You wonder. If they all use a similar test, how come one bans it and others don't? Is there something we don't know?"

Major bat manufacturers have royalty-based licensing agreements with the Amateur Softball Association, United States Specialty Sports Association and International Softball Association. The associations won't discuss the exact figures and insist the contracts don't affect the decision of whether to ban a bat, but it's a concern.

"We know that if the ASA (banned bats) that violated every licensing agreement and contract we have out there, the lawsuits (from manufacturers) would come at a rate that is astonishing," Saylor says. "We feel that it doesn't matter. We feel that we can win."

It's a frustrating predicament for managers and sponsors. In today's game, when one bat can cost more than $400, the most competitive teams have a different piece of equipment for each type of tournament. Watanabe has gone through more than 150 bats in a season. And when teams can't use their best bats in one of the biggest tournaments of the year, they're upset.

"The criticism I've heard isn't that (Saylor) has banned the bats. The criticism is the timing," Linnemann says.

Teams were informed of the Metro's bat restrictions in mid-June, which in some cases was weeks after bat companies gave their newest bats to sponsored teams. Saylor's decision to disallow any bats coming out after the ban also has drawn criticism.

"I talked to Danney about it and said that we're the team that's getting (hurt)," says Johns. "We're sponsored by Louisville Slugger/TPS. They have a new aluminum bat and it's been approved by ASA, but Danney said no new bats in the Metro."

Saylor understands teams' concerns.

"Managers of dozens of teams say, 'What am I going to do, Dan? If (certain bats) are going to be legal, you've got to tell me. My team cannot go to gunfights any longer just carrying knives. If they're going to stay around, we've got to get them, too,' " Saylor says.

110 mph

Gunfights? The amount of technology going into softball bats in the last year more closely resembles a nuclear arms race.

Although the sport's sanctioning bodies have stepped up their testing procedures and developed more stringent criteria for player safety, bat manufacturers stay one step ahead. Some bats are engineered to pass the test, then become more effective with increased use. And with increased effectiveness comes increased risk.

According to Tony Laws of the Amateur Softball Association, advances in composite and double-wall bats will be held in check by the association's newest standards, which go into effect at the beginning of 2004. Composites, bats made of synthetic fibers, and double-walls, bats made with two thin outside shells, still will be allowed.

"The new cutoff point for our testing is 98 mph," Laws said of the new standards for how fast a bat can make a ball go. "They can use titanium or composites or whatever. We've set a performance standard, not a material standard."

At 98 mph, a pitcher 55 feet away has less than four-tenths of a second after the ball leaves the bat to figure out where the ball is going and move out of the way. If that sounds too fast, consider that some of the bats tested for Amateur Softball Association certification hit the ball back up the box in excess of 110 mph.

It's a dangerous element for a sport that sometimes mixes beer-drinking and aging athletes.

"Be logical," Saylor says. "If a bat hits a ball at you at 80 mph, things are going to happen. If it hits it back 90 mph, I think a few additional things are going to happen. If it hits it back in excess of 100 mph, let's assume something else is going to happen. Where is the cutoff point?"

For pitchers that point can be scary. Last year in Indianapolis, a month before Saylor's first bat ban, 21-year-old Greg Lee was pitching in an Indianapolis league when a line drive struck him in the ear. Lee dropped to the ground and later died. One news report said the bat used was a Worth 3DX, later banned.

Simpler times

Tom Taylor was notorious for going up the middle. He's heard the stories, though, and said he wouldn't think of hitting a ball back at the pitcher with some of today's bats.

Taylor also knows about hitting home runs. The Hall of Famer and Milford resident is widely considered the greatest home run hitter in Cincinnati softball history. He played professionally with the Cincinnati Suds.

He won the United States Specialty Sports Association home run championship in 1968 and 1969 at the world championships, with a wooden bat.

"If Tom Taylor was some of these guys' age and he swung a Miken, he'd be hitting balls that would never land," Johns says.

Taylor's not so sure.

"It would be interesting to get to hit with it," he says. "Cross-generational comparisons are interesting, but they're impossible. I think I could hit one 475 (feet), but I don't think I would want to because of the danger."

And the old-timers only see it getting worse. Myron Reinhardt, 76, was recently named Player of the Century by Cincinnati Softball News.

"I understand they keep developing better technology. I don't know how to stop it unless they go back to wooden bats," he says. "Back then it was a thrill to hit a home run. Now everyone does it."

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