|Wednesday, March 29
Updated: October 25, 11:15 AM ET
Bat controversy lingers over NCAA
By Eric Adelson
ESPN The Magazine Extra
On the field, it seems like just another college baseball season is under way. Stanford has a strong pitching staff, as usual. Miami is once again near the top of the polls. But behind the stats and scores, the future of the sport is at issue.
The performance of aluminum bats has sparked a controversy that now has the NCAA accused of ignoring safety standards recommended by its own rules committee under the specter of an antitrust lawsuit with an aluminum bat manufacturer. And after years of accusations and rulebook deliberation, the federal government has begun looking into the matter.
The firestorm started back in July of '98, at the Ritz Carlton in Kansas City. The NCAA, concerned with player safety and rapidly rising scores in college baseball games, held a summit of ball manufacturers and bat-makers. During the conference, a former Louisville Slugger consultant named Jack Mackay stood up and accused his former company and Easton, a competitor, of making hotter bats each season, ignoring the NCAA's demands that they hold performance to 1994 standards. Bat-makers strongly denied Mackay's accusation.
Mackay explained that bat-makers could improve performance by adding weight to the handle in order to move the balance point (or center of gravity) of the bat closer to the player's hands. Since a bat acts as a lever when swung in a game, a balance point closer to the knob allows hitters to move the barrel of the bat faster through the swing. (The balance point of a wood bat cannot be manipulated nearly as much since it is not hollow.) So a bat that moves at one speed in a testing facility can move at a much quicker rate when whipped through a strike zone on the field by a player Mackay suggested a uniform balance point for all aluminum bats. "The single most important factor in controlling bat performance is balance point," he says.
Mackay's complaint was not the first the NCAA had heard about balance point. A Brown University study commissioned by the NCAA in 1997 (www.nisss.org/Bsbll.htm) concluded that "bat speed was shown to have a stronger correlation with bat [balance point] than bat weight. This suggests that it would be more effective to regulate bat [balance point] than bat weight." But Mackay had worked for Louisville Slugger, and his stand in Kansas City pricked some ears on the NCAA Rules Committee.
After the summit, the Rules Committee recommended a limit on batted ball speed of 94 miles per hour. "The committee was unanimously convinced that bat performance was indeed a safety risk," the Committee wrote in a NCAA memo dated Dec. 4, 1998. In August of '98, the NCAA Executive Committee had approved the 94-mph exit speed limit, basing its decision on "research that the average time to react to a ball hit from [home plate to the pitcher's mound] is approximately 0.4 seconds. The ball-exit velocity that matches this reaction time is 93 miles per hour." The Executive Committee did not regulate a balance point control, but it did gather a research panel of scientists and engineers to study the bat issue.
Last year, the panel agreed that because of safety and competition issues, the NCAA should go to a "wood-like" standard. That meant a batted-ball exit speed "that equates to the highest average exit speed using Major League Baseball quality solid wood bats." The panel suggested that bats tested for approval should be swung at 80 mph "to better approximate game conditions," and balance point should be studied further.
It was a bold step for the NCAA, and it brought repercussions. Easton sued the NCAA, alleging the new regulations would interfere with its business practices.
The controversy reached a climax in September of '99. UMass-Lowell professor Jim Sherwood, the man who the NCAA assigned to test bats for the 2000 season, claims the NCAA pressured him to test bats for Easton in order to help settle the lawsuit. "They [the NCAA] were real anxious," Sherwood said. "I didn't like having to do scientific work under those conditions." On Sept. 28, the NCAA announced a new regulation limiting batted ball speed to 97 miles per hour -- 3 miles per hour more than the recommendation of the Rules Committee. Although the research panel recommended an 80 mph bat swing speed, the new 97 mph exit speed was based on a wood bat swung at 67 mph. And though the research panel dictated the use of the "highest average" exit speed of batted balls, the new rule was based on the highest exit speed at which Sherwood tested one Major League bat -- 96.5 mph.
That same week, Easton dropped the lawsuit. "We feel the NCAA handled the issue properly," says Easton president Jim Easton. "They used independent scientific analysis to develop the current standard." But some experts, including the secretary of the NCAA Rules Committee, cried foul. "The testing protocol was changed to standards we meant to be illegal," says Hall of Fame coach Bill Thurston. "The thing that is shocking to me is the NCAA took the Rules Committee completely out of it." Thurston fired off a letter to the NCAA listing eight standards -- including balance point -- that he felt were "compromised" in Sherwood's testing.
The NCAA's Renfro strongly asserts that "there is no connection" between the resolution of the Easton suit and the new regulations. "We have complete confidence that we would have won that case," Renfro said. "Our major concern was getting the standard set and then getting the bats certified for the 2000 season. We wanted to get toned-down bats into place." However, two Easton models and one Louisville Slugger model used in '99 passed the new standards and can be used in 2000. Mackay and Thurston claim those bats are not "toned-down."
Responding to the accusation that the NCAA ignored the Rules Committee's urgings on a 94-mph exit speed, Renfro stated that "there's a difference between taking it [the Rules Committee] into account and agreeing with it." Renfro explained that the new 97-mph exit speed exceeds the recommended 94-mph speed because a new "hotter" Rawlings ball adds an extra 2 mph to each exit speed. The third mile per hour was added for "a little tolerance, because we had not done a lot of testing." A 67-mph bat swing speed was used instead of an 80-mph bat speed because wood bats broke at speeds of 70 mph and higher. According to research panel member and Rice University professor Michael Carroll, the comparison of wood performance to aluminum performance tested at 67 mph will hold at 80 mph.
But Trey Crisco, a professor at Brown University who oversaw the 1997 bat study for the NCAA, questions that logic. "You can never collect data at one point and extrapolate," he says. "They put a point on a graph and say they know what's higher and lower? No way." Crisco also has problems with the testing procedure itself, which he says was rushed and has not been repeated. "The premise of scientific research is that results aren't gospel until reapplied in another lab," says Crisco. "If these bats come out and they're hot as hell, the NCAA is to blame."
What happened to balance point? "We've known for three years that balance point correlates to swing speed," says Crisco. "And swing speed is a major factor in ball exit speed. If you want wood-like performance, you have to control for balance point."
Sherwood himself takes part of the responsibility. He says he wanted to give the bat-makers more freedom to design bats. "I did not realize what (some) bat-makers would do to violate the spirit of the rules," Sherwood said in a phone interview on March 10, although his memo said Easton has made bats in the spirit of the rules.
Meanwhile, George Manning of Louisville Slugger openly admits that "We became aware of how they were going to test, and our goal was to satisfy what players wanted and still pass the test." So Louisville's Omaha model -- with a balance point closer to the handle -- passed for the 2000 season, while the Air Attack model -- with a balance point closer to the barrel -- did not. "The test is flawed," Manning says, "but it isn't clear to them [the NCAA] that the test is flawed."
On Feb. 7, Sherwood e-mailed the NCAA. He wrote that he understood "the urgency to end the Easton case" and so he "cooperated in resolving that matter." Yet Sherwood also fretted that settling the suit was "traded for a far worse scenario," and he was "genuinely concerned that someone is going to get seriously hurt and potentially killed." According to Sherwood, the NCAA replied with an assurance that they would investigate the balance point issue.
Research panel member Carroll admits that because of balance point, aluminum performs about 4 percent better than wood. "We knew of the importance of [balance point], but we basically thought it was a wash," Carroll said. "In fact it does matter. If the manufacturers see this as a loophole, we would have to change the rule." Yet the NCAA had evidence of the importance of balance point more than two years ago.
And now it appears the federal government is keeping score. In March, the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission began gathering data for an investigation into the safety of aluminum bats "What Jack Mackay told us all along," says Thurston, "was dead on."
Ironically, it was Mackay who helped launch the bat race. Back in 1988, the former pecan rancher bought his son two Louisville Slugger bats. The end cap fell out of both, and he called the company to complain. Mackay, the son of a steel man, suggested that Louisville use a different type of plastic for bat end-caps. He then made a mold for the end caps and sent it to Louisville. The end caps proved strong enough to allow Louisville to make bats with a much larger sweet spot. Louisville offered Mackay a contract to help develop a more powerful line of bats. Suddenly, after 100 years of specializing in wood bats, Louisville was a major player in the aluminum bat industry. Easton followed with its own improvements, and the war was on.
Louisville Slugger and Easton made millions by improving bat performance year after year. "It costs about the same to make a wood bat versus an aluminum bat," Mackay says. "About $25. But you can't sell a wood bat for $300."
On the field, stats went through the roof. From 1989 to 1993, 33 runs were scored in the five College World Series championship games. From 1994 to 1998, 105 runs were scored in the finals. And in those four years ('94 to '98), Division I batting average climbed 16 points, home runs per game jumped from 0.69 to 1.06 and ERA leapt almost a full point. Mackay began his crusade to reverse course by urging Louisville to "detune" the bats. He even attempted to work with a counterpart at Easton to gradually lower performance without informing the leaders of the two companies. Nothing worked. So in September of '97, Mackay quit. Then, at that NCAA summit in July of 1998, Mackay blew the whistle.
Mackay simply felt guilty, he says, and worried that a college pitcher would get killed because of technology he helped pioneer. A study by Thurston showed that pitchers need .375 seconds to react to a batted ball hit straight at them. While only 5 percent of balls hit by wood bats got to the pitchers' mound in that time, 60 percent of balls hit by aluminum arrived in less than .375 seconds.
In defense of his product, company president Jim Easton points to NCAA injury statistics. "All sports have some level of risk," he says, "but college baseball -- according to the NCAA's own Injury Surveillance System -- has been and remains safest of all men's collegiate sports."
Andrew Sanchez might disagree. Last year, the Cal State Northridge pitcher had his skull fractured by a ball hit by a Louisville Slugger bat. Sanchez has sued the NCAA and the bat-maker, alleging that the NCAA and Louisville Slugger "should have known that the high powered bats increased the risk of injuries to pitchers."
Eric Adelson writes for ESPN The Magazine.