The New American Pastime

Always catalyzed by a child’s injury or death, the debate between using wood or aluminum baseball bats in Little League flares around the country once or twice a year.  Sides divide and argue whether the increased velocity, thus injurious momentum, of a baseball coming off an aluminum bat should be nullified by (re)introducing wooden bats.  Pitchers and corner infielders are in danger, so the argument goes, because due to the lack of parity in adolescent/teenage strength and coordination, smaller kids have trouble reacting when a bigger kid turns on a pitch and blasts a line drive in their direction.  The way to mitigate this danger is to go back to wooden bats which trampoline the ball less, reducing the speed and chance for injury.

The counter arguers believe that lighter aluminum bats allow kids to learn and enjoy the game by swinging faster and putting more power behind the ball.  They will take more interest in the game with higher run totals and batting averages and are more likely to continue participating.  In terms of danger, the shards of a broken wooden bat have caused injuries just as serious as a line drive off a (unbreakable) metal bat and with a death every other year, at some point we need to accept the inherent nature of sports. (And on a personal note: there is nothing like crushing a fastball in the sweet spot of a 32/34 aluminum big barrel.)

That, more or less, is the whole debate.  It is real.  Both sides have valid points.  So after a neighborhood kid takes a come-backer off the face and slips into a coma (as happened in Marin County, California last month) and local coverage ensues, experts claiming medical, political, parental, administrative and patriotic credentials fill the local airwaves and editorial pages with their opinion on whether or not the town, city or county should or should not introduce wooden bats.

Or another way to look at it:  They create the perfect microcosm of the National Debate Market.

American traditions?

Evenly divided opinion?

Debatable statistics?

Debatable science?

Debatable solutions?

Regulation of the private sector on ethical grounds?

Regulation of safety on ethical grounds?

Business gain?

Political gain?

Government of the children, by the children, for the children?

…check, check and check!  All that, and we’re talking about baseball?  The only way this debate gets any red meatier is if safer bats were made of recycled rock records and pie tins.

This got me thinking: if this is such a slam dunk piece of fodder for every facet of the National Debate Market, why haven’t we seen it yet?  It has all the right pieces.  It has its own Wikipedia entry. Isn’t this the kind of piece that Congress and Cable thrives on?  Isn’t this the sort of debate that wins Senator Outrage Grandstanderson elections?

In terms of their time, we know Congress is never that discerning.  “Importance” doesn’t necessarily govern their calendars.  They have no problem focusing on “issues” based on individual cases.  Like the time they took long breathers during two wars to debate Terry Schiavo’s fate.  They have no problem focusing on the I’m-not-sure-if-that’s-relevant-to-your-job. Like the time they stopped paying attention to a faltering economy and tarnished childhood idols during the steroid theatrics.  Bottom line: they know how to make room in their schedules if there are available notches for the belt.

And if we look beneath the hood, as far as the political business interests, Little Leagues switching to wooden bats across the country would be a massive sales channel for the Forces That Be in the logging/lumber industry, so you’d think they would prop up some publicity.  With tragedies in New York, Illinois, New Jersey, Montana and now California in the last five years—in one case, a kid dying on the pitcher’s mound—it would resonate.  Then Congress could “review the safety records of aluminum bats,” and hold all kinds of hearings. (and quietly turn to the Forces That Be in the aluminum industry, hand out, eyebrows up)

So why hasn’t it gone for another episode of Much Ado About Nothing?

Well, maybe we should just give it time.  Maybe we’ve got a different set of priorities governing Congress these days with a different party in power.  Or maybe the Forces That Be in the aluminum industry have an…aluminum grip on the situation.  Or maybe, the congressional staffers have let their bosses know that Americans would turn up their noses at another baseball-related hearing (“Too soon, sir”).  I would believe any of those.

But what if there’s just no villain?  No “they.”  We don’t have an entity Congress and Cable can put in the crosshairs.  The baseball bat discussion is just a real, honest, easy-to-digest debate about our children’s safety.  That’s it.  And that’s why it stops at a local level.  Washington doesn’t care because there are no bad guys.  You could never convince The American People that the aluminum industry or the bat makers are unethical and must be stopped in the name of freedom.  You can’t demonize them like Big Oil or Wall Street or The Insurance Companies or Steroid Using Baseball Players or even People That Want To Kill A Defenseless Retarded Woman.  Alcoa and Easton are just making American products for the American game for the American people.  It doesn’t get any more patriotic.

Sure, you can dig up the old template argument and say market forces drive companies to make bats more reflexive and dangerous to children, causing injuries worse than steroids and sometimes death, thus needing better regulation…but how do we make a CSPAN hearing out of that?

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Follow Caleb at www.twitter.com/calebgarling

Caleb Garling lives in San Francisco and wrote The St George’s Angling Club, available at

www.calebgarling.com

 

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2 Responses to The New American Pastime

  1. John Whitehead says:

    Why is faster better? Bigger? Farther? Harder? Yes, it is much ado about nothing, unless we stop to remember that it’s about our kids’ playing games. We unfortunately teach them that bigger, harder, farther, badder is better. Once again, we’ve lost sight of what the discussion should really be about – ie, children having fun. In that context, make the bats consistently safe. That’s all. Forget about the superlatives. If we keep our eyes on the ball (sorry for the pun), maybe we and our children will actually learn something constructive and larger in the discussion.

  2. Thom Serra says:

    I think you and I actually had this conversation once. I’m for the switch to wood as uncomfortable as that would be to the industry forces that are in place.

    The real challenge is to implement this, it would have to start at the college level as the NCAA is engaged in a long-term contract with Easton and breaking that contract would be followed by costly lawsuits (the other American pastime), etc.! etc.! etc.! to steal a quote from the great Willy Wonka.

    Statistics aside, for anyone who has spent time in a batter’s box, it’s not even a discussion as to which bat performs better. Amateurs regularly hit balls over 400 feet with aluminum…something alot of PROFESSIONALS can’t do with wood…isn’t that telling?

    So with that in mind, why increase the risk of what is already a dangerous activity? As you alluded to, you simply can’t prevent everything…there is inherent risk in any sport or activity for that matter. But if there is a reasonable alternative (for many reasons including refining of skills, I believe wood to be better), why not pursue that in an effort to hopefully prevent the next tragedy?

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