Metal vs. wood: Top college coaches prefer metal bats to wood
OMAHA, Neb. – If coaches at the top U.S. college baseball programs have their way, the ping of the aluminum bat will forever remain a part of the game.
According to an Associated Press survey of 24 coaches whose programs have won 1,000 or more games since 1985, 17 said they preferred aluminum and that there was no need to study the possibility of going to wood bats.
“I just don’t see the aluminum bat hindering our game in any way,” Mississippi State’s John Cohen said. “In an ideal world, wood would be cheap, very cost efficient and it would be totally equitable. That can never happen.”
Five coaches said they like wood better, but all acknowledged that aluminum probably is here to stay. Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan said he had no opinion on the question and Arizona State coach Tim Esmay declined to participate in the survey as both teams prepared for the College World Series, which begins Saturday with TCU, Florida St., UCLA, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Clemson also in the field.
Proponents of metal argue that all 301 Division I programs play with the same thing and there’s no risk of having top programs playing with better wooden bats, potentially skewing the results. They also like the scoring boost and say a $300 aluminum bat can last an entire 56-game season, while $100 wooden bats can break at any time.
Still, wooden bats have appeal. They allow the game to be played as it was intended, the argument goes, with the hit-and-run, base stealing and bunting all emphasized. Plus, college players would in theory be better prepared to move to professional baseball.
Earlier this year, Division II commissioners began studying the possibility of going to wood, perhaps as soon as 2012.
Ty Halpin, the NCAA associate director of playing rules administration, said Division II made the move in part to address length-of-game concerns. Aluminum-bat games generally take longer because there is more offense.
The length of games also is a concern in Division I. The NCAA does not track the time of games in the regular season. But in 1973, the year before aluminum bats, the average College World Series game lasted 2 hours, 19 minutes. Last year, the average was a record 3:38, with four games stretching longer than 4 hours, and since 1996, the average CWS game has been under 3 hours just once.
Aluminum bats were seen as a cost-saving alternative to wood when they were introduced at the college level in 1974, and the extra offense they produced added excitement to the games.
Advances in technology and design in the 1980s and ’90s fueled an arms race of sorts where companies tried to make the liveliest bat.
The result: an integrity-of-the-game crisis that peaked in the 1998 College World Series, when there were a record 62 home runs in 14 games. Southern California’s 21-14 championship-game win over Arizona State, which featured seven home runs and 39 hits, was a turning point.
The NCAA began taking steps to tone down aluminum bats and make them perform more like wood, a process that continues 12 years later. In 2011, a new standard will be implemented to bring the performance of metal bats closer to that of wood.
Previous bat testing emphasized the speed with which a ball exited the bat, but there were discrepancies with different lengths of bats. Researchers for the NCAA believe the new formula will offer a more direct measure, using wood-bat performance as the baseline.
Renewed calls for wood came up last year when it was discovered that some composite-barreled bats had been tampered with to circumvent NCAA bat standards. Composite barrels – which contain varying amounts of graphite, fiberglass and resilient plastic – were banned for 2010 but will be allowed in 2011 if they meet the new standards.
Wood, of course, remains legal at all levels of college baseball. Just don’t count on ever seeing it in Division I, where bat makers’ have long-standing relationships with the top programs.
Manufacturers such as Louisville Slugger and Easton provide free bats and other gear to elite programs and pay coaches – sometimes six figures – for agreeing to use their products.
Paul Mainieri, coach of 2009 national champion LSU, has a clause in his contract that calls for him to receive $150,000 a year from the school’s athletic booster club and equipment deals. His contract does not break down how much of that money comes from Easton, the Tigers’ bat supplier.
Asked about the bat issue, Mainieri said only that he prefers aluminum.
“He is concerned about saying anything that might affect his relationship with his bat company,” LSU baseball spokesman Bill Franques wrote in an e-mail to The Associated Press.
Besides the coaches’ paychecks, many programs save thousands of dollars a year in equipment costs because bat manufacturers supply bats for free.
“I think there’s some traditionalist in all of us,” said South Carolina’s Ray Tanner, whose contract calls for him to receive $120,000 a year from Easton. “That being said, aluminum bats are in college baseball because of costs. I’m not sure that wooden bats would ever be possible again.”
Oklahoma’s Sunny Golloway, who prefers wood, said economics won’t allow Division I to go away from metal bats, which set the college game apart from pro ball.
“If we all of a sudden are swinging a wooden bat, there’s a good chance we are not the showcase anymore,” he said. “I’m realistic enough to know you’re not going to ask coach A or coach X to not accept his 100K check this year so they can try this wooden bat.”
Louisville Slugger spokesman Rick Redman said it would be a challenge, but not impossible, for bat companies to supply college teams with wood bats. A switch would have to be phased in, he said, because manufacturers would have to ramp up production over several timber harvest cycles.
Even then, he said, “I can tell you that college baseball programs would not get the best wood.”
Redman said his company reserves its best timber for the major leagues and the next-best grades for the minor leagues and pro leagues in other countries.
“College baseball would likely come after all that,” he said.
An Easton publicist, Marcey Brightwell, said the company had no comment.
Cal State Fullerton coach Dave Serrano said even though he prefers wood to aluminum, he sees no reason to change, not with the new bat standards coming next season.
“College baseball’s popularity is probably the highest it’s ever been. The numbers show it,” Serrano said. “How many people attend the College World Series and keep watching it on ESPN? If it’s not broke, why fix it?”
– AP sportswriter Pete Iacobelli in Columbia, S.C., and Associated Press writer Murray Evans in Oklahoma City contributed to this report.