CITYWIDE — The familiar “ping” sound of a ball springing off an aluminum bat has long been associated with high school baseball. In Santa Monica and the rest of California, that sound may soon be a thing of the past — at least if a bill proposed by Assemblyman Jared Huffman goes into effect.
Predictably, the legislation to ban metal bats has been met with opposition from high school baseball traditionalists and bat companies alike, but several local coaches aren’t too thrilled by the idea, either.
Huffman, D-San Rafael, authored AB 7 in March, after 16-year-old pitcher Gunnar Sandberg of Marin Catholic High School was struck in the head by a line drive. Sandberg, who underwent surgery to remove a portion of his skull and was placed in a drug-induced coma, has since recovered from the horrifying injury.
The bill, which is currently in the state Senate, calls for a one-year moratorium on metal bats and, according to Huffman, would provide time to develop increased safety measures such as composite bats or protective head guards. In the meantime, only wooden bats would be permitted in competition.
“We’ve got a problem that needs to be addressed in baseball involving the turbo performance of metal bats,” Huffman said. “I think rather than wait for the next kid to get killed or put in a coma we ought to do something.”
Huffman pointed to the greater ball speed generated by a metal bat as a driving force behind the legislation.
“You’re already dealing with a split-second reaction,” he said of the time it takes a well-hit ball to reach a fielder. “When you further reduce it … common sense tells you you’re, at some level, creating a greater safety risk.”
Even before debating such concerns, multiple local high school baseball coaches are taking issue with Huffman’s involvement. Santa Monica’s Sheldon Philip-Guide is among that group.
“I kind of find it strange that they wait for something like this to happen,” Philip-Guide said. “I think it should be left up to the authorities of high school baseball.”
New Roads coach Sean Brookes agreed.
“Just for the legislator to get involved like that, it’s knee-jerk,” Brookes said. “I’m not in favor of the bill because of legislation and because they don’t have the baseball knowledge.”
Huffman said he is pushing AB 7 because he hasn’t observed a real move to promote greater safety in the high school game.
“My hope is that baseball officials will step up to this and do it themselves. I don’t want to be legislating specific outcomes, but it’s not happening,” Huffman said.
But St. Monica coach Jack White argues that wooden bats aren’t much safer and that incidents like Sandberg’s are tragic but rare.
“I think a kid could get hurt just as easily with a wood bat as with a metal bat,” White said. “There’s such a small percentage of kids getting hurt. Obviously you hear about the ones who do.”
Brookes said he doesn’t believe a ball struck by a metal bat travels significantly faster than one hit by a wooden counterpart.
“If you hit the ball square on wood and you hit the ball square on metal, there isn’t much of a difference,” Brookes said.
Added Philip-Guide: “You never want to see something like kids getting hit in the head with the ball, but unfortunately, I think it’s still a possibility with a wooden bat.”
Also worrisome to opponents of the bill are the financial costs of switching to wooden bats, which break and splinter easily. Whereas a single aluminum bat often lasts for years, a player can go through several wooden bats in a season.
“I don’t think we need a moratorium,” Brookes said. “It’s still going to be expensive, even with composites.”
Then there is the necessary adjustment in the way the game would be played in the absence of metal bats. Wooden bats are heavier and thus offer a steep learning curve to high school hitters accustomed to swinging an aluminum bat.
“They’re not Major League ballplayers. Some of these kids need metal bats,” Pacifica Christian coach Julian Chavez said.
Philip-Guide said banning metal bats would also dull the excitement of high school baseball.
“It’s something that would probably take away from hitters for the most part and take away from the game,” Philip-Guide said, adding that the “bigger sweet spot” on an aluminum bat provides for farther-hit balls and more offense.
Huffman, though, characterized arguments that wooden bats would detract from the quality of high school baseball as “an extremely narrow view of the game.”
He wasn’t the only one to counter the point.
“I don’t really like aluminum bats,” said Samohi pitcher Alonzo Gonzalez, who feels a switch to wooden bats would be beneficial.
“Players would definitely take the art [of hitting] and baseball in general a lot more seriously. … I think you’ll see a lot more complete baseball players. I think hitting mechanics would shoot through the roof.”