Massachusetts Votes for Wood

By Staff

Athletic Management, 15.3, April/May 2003,

When Massachusetts high school baseball teams square off in the state tournament later this spring, an unexpected sound will emanate off their bats. The usual pings will be replaced by cracks, thanks to a rule change requiring wood bats in all tournament games.

The Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA) is also considering banning bats in the regular season beginning in 2004. That potential change will be voted on in May.

The safety of nonwood bats has been hotly debated over the past few years at various levels of play. The NCAA Baseball Rules Committee has concentrated on defining standards to decrease the power of aluminum bats and the NFHS, for the most part, has followed the college game’s lead. A handful of high school and collegiate conferences have changed over to wood on an experimental basis, but the MIAA’s ruling is the first large-scale switch to date.

The impetus for the rule change came after two pitchers in the state were severely injured by batted balls in 2001. The most well-known incident occurred in May of that year, when Wellesley High School pitcher Billy Hughto took a hit to the head from a ball hit off an aluminum bat. A piece of bone spiked an artery, quickly turning things life-threatening. Hughto spent three days in a coma, but eventually recovered fully. Hughto’s father has been a primary mover in the fight to outlaw aluminum bats in Massachusetts high school play.

There were several videotapes running at that game. “The entire incident was caught on tape, and it was later played back on the news,” says MIAA spokesman Paul Wetzel. “People saw it over and over.”

That incident prompted an initial request for the MIAA to look into the issue of aluminum bats. The first group to analyze the issue was the MIAA’s Sports Medicine Committee, which initially supported a ban on aluminum bats, but later reversed its opinion.

“They explained their change by saying additional research and information led them to believe there was no compelling case that wood bats would enhance the safety of the game,” Wetzel says. “So, their position was neutral as far as aluminum and other non-wood bats being dangerous, but that wood bats were no more safe.”

On the other side of the debate is the MIAA’s Baseball Committee, which consists of 16 athletic administrators and principals and sets the rules for the state tournament. According to Wetzel, “Their view could be best summed up by comments like, ‘You can’t eliminate risk from high school sports, but if we have an opportunity to minimize risk, we should take it,’” Wetzel explains.

In the middle is a special task force organized by MIAA President Jeffrey Long to examine the issue. It consists of four members of the Baseball Committee, three members of the Sports Medicine Committee, a member of the Massachusetts Baseball Coaches’ Association, and a member of the MIAA Board of Directors who serves as task force chair.

This group subsequently reviewed existing information and collected new information relevant to the issue. On January 15, the task force heard from more than 25 interested parties expressing views on the issue during five hours of public comment. Among the speakers were parents, coaches, bat company representatives, athletic administrators, directors of leagues and governing bodies, an umpire, and several scientists.

At the end of January, the task force voted 7-1 not to switch to wood for the 2003 regular season, but voted 5-4 to recommend that the change be implemented for the 2004 season. That recommendation will be considered by the MIAA Board of Directors at their annual rules changes meeting in May.

In a February meeting, the Massachusetts Baseball Coaches Association (MBCA) requested that the MIAA Baseball Committee reconsider its decision to use wood bats in this year’s tournament. “You get to the tournament and you can’t use the equipment that got you there?” asked Stoughton High School Head Coach Bob Ashley, president of the MBCA. “This is not what the coaches want and the coaches need your support.”

But the Baseball Committee declined to reverse its decision, citing the work of the task force. “A great deal of time was extended looking at all aspects of the safety issue,” said Committee Chairperson Tom Pileski, Athletic Director at Brockton High School, in the Boston Herald. “The 7-1 vote [by the task force] shows that it could not be proven that there was a significant injury factor, but in the 5-4 vote, people looked at wood as the way in which they wanted to go.”

While the debate continues, four leagues in Massachusetts that experimented with wood bats last season will stick with them this year. “The wood bat issue is a challenge to us administratively because of the breakage factor,” says Tom Lamb, Athletic Director at Natick High School, which plays in the wood-bat Bay State League. “Most of the metal bats these kids are used to have thin handles, so they all want the thin-handled wooden bats. But those have a higher percentage of breakage.”

However, Lamb is in favor of a statewide move to wood bats from aluminum. “I feel there is a difference between the safety of the two bats,” he says. “If you hit balls at the third baseman, one off the wooden bat versus one off the aluminum bat, you’d definitely see a difference there. It’s more expensive but safer, and safety comes first.”

Lamb also sees a way to please both sides on the issue. “My contention is that the bat companies will make a ‘softer’ metal bat as soon as they need to,” he says. “To me, that’s the solution.”