Legion coaches mixed on switch to wooden bats
In his 26 years as Springdale's manager, Frank Sweeney has endured change in American Legion baseball. And, like many of his counterparts around the state, he's tolerated it.
Like when Legion started allowing 19-year-olds to play, or when the state's organization did away with its once-thriving all-star process.
Now, it's an issue with wood bats.
For the first time, Pennsylvania American Legion Baseball has gone to the exclusive use of wood bats, shelving aluminum, which it had used for decades.
“I don't have the slightest idea why they did this,” said Sweeney, 73. “Last year they talked about doing it, but no one thought they actually would. We got the new rule book this year, and there was the rule.”
Last season, American Legion deemed certain aluminum bats illegal, including “composite” bats that were not branded with the BBCOR stamp.
BBCOR stands for Batted Ball Coefficient of Restitution and refers to the “trampoline” effect a bat's barrel has on a ball.
Coaches and umpires had to police bats last season, with some situations causing controversy.
Teams slowly are adapting to the purist-pleasing rule change.
Plum first-year manager Mark Dargay said his team started with 12 bats purchased throughout the Plum Baseball and Softball Association, and several players purchased their own bats.
Dargay said the main issue was getting used to how (the bats) changed the game.
“Initially, the wooden bats were a major factor, because we were hitting little dinkers here and there,” Dargay said.
“They are hitting the ball harder now, but it just won't go as far as with the metal bats. The teams have changed the way they play defensively. They don't play as deep in the outfield as they used to. It has shortened the field, so to speak.”
Plum has batting practice a couple of times a week to sharpen their wooden-bat skills.
New Monroeville manager Rob Wratcher appreciates the way the bats have caused teams to adjust their games.
“It's definitely a different game, especially at this level, where kids aren't hitting 500-foot home runs,” Wratcher said.
“It's not Major League Baseball where they could use a club and it wouldn't matter. It's a big adjustment, where the ball doesn't go as fast off the bat. With the metal bat, you can be fooled and poke a long double out of it. With wood, it ends up being a little pop up to an infielder. It can change strategy where you might be playing small ball and playing for one run earlier in the game.”
Wratcher admitted he's always been a fan of the wooden bats.
“It requires the hitter to be more disciplined and learn to put a better swing on the ball,” he said.
“It's a lot safer with the wood bats, especially for the pitchers. The pitchers have a little bit more time to react because the ball isn't coming off the bat as fast as with a metal bat.”
Kiski Valley coach Dennis Montgomery said there are a lot less cheap hits, and those things, he said, drive coaches and pitchers crazy.
“But last year, the purpose of going to the BBCOR was to get the exit ratio of the ball off the bat to be equivalent to wood,” he said.
“Well, if that was the purpose, why now is the BBCOR bat no longer being used?”
Kiski Valley center fielder Matt Wolczko said the transition to wood for some of his teammates has been smooth.
“As a team, collectively, we're pretty young, so it's hard to tell,” Wolczko said.
“For the older players, it doesn't seem to be a factor. BBCOR makes them like wood, so I don't see the difference.”
Wolczko just completed his sophomore season with the Penn State-Behrend baseball team.
“The wood bats are definitely not as forgiving,” said Wolczko, in his fourth year of Legion ball. “You have to take some time to adjust. But if you don't, you're out of luck.”
The common theme among the detractors is cost because the bats, once broken, might be better for a bonfire.
“Obviously, the fear is one game you break two or three or more,” Montgomery said. “But that has not happened yet. One or two is all we have broken.”
Dargay said only a couple of bats out of the 16 to 20 used by Plum players have broken.
The cost of the bats varies, but Kiski Valley pays $52 per bat, with a discount for purchasing a dozen or more. No composite bats or bamboo wood is allowed, only maple or ash — which are cheaper in many cases.
“We purchased a dozen to start with,” Montgomery said. “We'll see how long they last.
“Most of the guys have their own, but once those break, they have been going to the bats that we purchased on behalf of the team. It remains to be seen if more bats will need to be purchased — basically with money that was not in the budget when aluminum bats were being used.”
Sweeney said Springdale uses fundraisers and donations to foot the bill.
“Some kids buy their own (bats),” Sweeney said. “We buy a certain amount, but we only put so many out at a time.”
Springdale also has seen limited splintering of bats. But Sweeney said it's technique that can help to salvage sticks.
“Kids grab the bats and don't hold them the right way,” Sweeney said. “They hit against the grain, and the bats crack easier.”
Mike Hogan, the sectional director of Westmoreland and Cambria county Legions, said the Murrysville team cracked 20 bats in its first seven games.
“We will have to wait to see what the official total of bats lost at the end of the season is,” Hogan said. “I told coaches to keep track.”
Hogan believes safety was the main reason for the switch to wood.
However, “One reason I heard was pro scouts wanted to see wood (bats),” Hogan said. “Also, out East and up into New England, wooden-bat leagues are growing in popularity.”
Montgomery doesn't buy the safety issue being the end-all in determining to adopt the rule.
“We have had bats break and the barrel head right for the mound,” he said. “In 30 years, I have seen a couple of aluminum bats break. Both were at the handle and didn't even come out of the bat handle rubber. So safety issues have increased with wood, not decreased.”
Trib Total Media staff writer Michael Love contributed to this report.
Bill Beckner Jr. is a staff writer with Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.