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Late start on new bat regulations is driving players, schools, stores batty

Manufacturers try to catch up with demand, say CIF's late decision threw them behind
By: Bill Poindexter/Roseville Press Tribune Sports Editor
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While high school baseball practice literally is in full swing, bat racks at some sporting goods stores in the Roseville area remain empty, still waiting for their ship to come in, in a manner of speaking.

The California Interscholastic Federation announced in August that high school bats would need to carry the new Bat-Ball Coefficient of Restitution – aka BBCOR – stamp this season, a year ahead of the original plan. Problem is, some stores still can’t get their hands on them.

Tim Hollman, store manager at Bases Loaded in Folsom, said last week there were 70 BBCOR bats in stock, from four manufacturers. Hollman said Bases Loaded received one shipment of bats. On Tuesday, he was still waiting for a second shipment.

Meanwhile, at Extra Innings in Rocklin, owner Bill Randall said last week he still had nothing.

“Half the stuff is the old composite that got banned,” he said.

Roseville’s Sports Authority store had several BBCOR bats – which have less pop than the current Baseball Exit Speed Ratio bats – last week and expected to have up to 12 models by the end of February, according to store manager Kyle Collins. Sports Authority is in partnership with the CIF to supply BBCOR bats.

The timing of the CIF’s decision made it tough for manufacturers to supply enough bats to California high schools, according to bat company officials and store owners.

“Never a period more confusing in my 35 years,” said Marty Archer, president of the Louisville Slugger division of Hillerich & Bradsby Co., Inc., now in its 127th year in the baseball business.

How it started
The NCAA adopted the BBCOR standards in May 2009 and planned to go to the new bats this year with the National Federation of State High School Associations to follow in 2012.

Then, pitcher Gunnar Sandberg of Marin Catholic High School in Kentfield was critically injured last March when he was hit in the head by a line drive (he began practice with his teammates last week, according to an Associated Press story). Assemblyman Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) followed by introducing Assembly Bill 7, which would have put a two-year moratorium on aluminum bats.

As the bill was being reviewed last summer, the CIF decided to go to the BBCOR regulations a year early based on financial – schools being forced to purchase wood bats for the next two years, including physical education classes – and safety concerns, Executive Director Marie Ishida said last week.

“It’s not cost effective to make schools go out and buy new bats. They break easier, too,” Ishida said. “Let’s do it now (in August) and err on the side of safety. So he dropped his bill.”

California and Virginia are the only two states to adopt the BBCOR regulations in 2011.

So many players, so little time
Bat companies had the colleges covered, but having to produce more BBCOR bats for California’s estimated 40,000 high school players created a problem, according to Mike May in West Palm Beach, Fla., director of communications for the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association.

“It takes awhile to make all those bats,” he said. “It takes awhile to design a bat, test a bat. They always fail first time through. It’s been a big challenge technologically. It’s not a matter of flicking your fingers and voila, here are your bats.

“Throw in the equation that California announces (six) months ago they’re going BBCOR … and the industry is like, ‘That’s great, but the biggest priority is the colleges. We’ll do the best we can. We don’t mean to be rude, but it’s a lot easier to make a T-shirt than a baseball bat.’ It was a race against time to meet the college demand. As soon as they arrive in the country, they’re being shipped to destinations. There are probably a lot of bats sitting on boats in the middle of the Pacific right now. We just have to wait.”

There were customers last fall that unknowingly bought bats that would be illegal in 2011, then couldn’t return them to stores because of broken-seal policies. As customers became aware of the new regulations, Randall began fielding more calls from people asking questions instead of buying. Christmas came and went with Santa Claus lacking bats to load into his sled.

Little League Baseball also put a moratorium on composite bats in its Major, Junior, Senior and Big League divisions, affecting Roseville West, Woodcreek and Lakeside locally. After an initial round of testing, Little League assembled a list of composite bats receiving waivers, according to a news release on its website dated Jan. 20.

“That came out of nowhere,” said Randall, who now has bats manufacturers won’t take back.

He also heard from a customer who bought a name-brand bat and was told by the company it would allow that bat to be traded in for a comparable bat.
“We’re waiting around now,” Randall said. “I can’t afford to risk buying tens of thousands of dollars in bats. These bats are expensive. I had a feeling this was going to happen. It’s hard to find a bat right now. It messes up the Little League end of things. (Manufacturers) didn’t know what to produce.”

BBCOR vs. BESR
In moving to the BBCOR bat, the NCAA wanted to tone down the game, “bring back the integrity of the game also,” Ishida said. “The whole rationale was to make them more wood-like.”

BBCOR bats are end-heavy and more difficult to swing, especially for younger and smaller high school players, Archer said.

Randall and Granite Bay High School coach Pat Esposito heard stories of dwindling home run totals in college fall programs using BBCOR bats.

“They say it’s like a water-logged wood bat they’re trying to hit,” Oakmont High senior Kyle Jones said. “The ball just dies.”

Dr. Lloyd V. Smith of the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering at Washington State University acknowledged a BESR bat would hit a ball farther than a BBCOR bat but, “The difference is less than 5 percent,” he said. “You’re talking a few feet.”

A small number of bats that meet the outgoing BESR and Accelerated Break-In (ABI) standards have been grandfathered into the 2011 season by the NFHS, to the disagreement of Louisville Slugger’s Archer and the SGMA’s May.

“I don’t think any manufacturers were able to produce enough BBCOR bats to equip California adequately, and that’s why they allowed the BESR bats,” Archer said.

Some BESR-stamped composite bats became more powerful the more they were used, according to Randall.

“As it hits, it basically crushes that fiber and weakens it, and it becomes more flexible,” he said. “As they were used, they were surpassing the certification. They couldn’t control it.”

Esposito noted that BBCOR bats increase safety but also diminish the game “a little bit.”

“Now, I’m all for safety, but sooner or later, they’re going to tell us infielders have to wear safety masks because they may get hit with the ball,” he said. “Somewhere there, it has to stop.”

Granite Bay and Woodcreek have purchased a few bats for each level of their programs this season, according to Esposito and Woodcreek coach Kelly Mayo.

“Something the kids can use so they don’t have to go out and buy their own,” Esposito said.

Mayo said he began talking to his players about the bat situation in November, and some of his players have purchased BBCOR bats.

Changes in the game
Roseville coach Hank DeMello said in an e-mail he agreed changes needed to be made, though they “probably could have been done gradually.”

Esposito sees two sides of the BBCOR/wood bat debate. He believes Major League Baseball would approve of high school players using wood because draft picks wouldn’t have to be taught how to swing wood after signing contracts. DeMello said the same regarding scouts. Esposito believes swinging wood bats makes hitters better, but the high school game wouldn’t be as exciting with wood bats.

“You’re not going to score a lot of runs. You just don’t have strength in the hands and arms and body size where you’re going to drive the ball as well,” Esposito said. “But if everybody went to it, then the game would be the game – you know, toned down. That’s what their whole thing is. I just wish they wouldn’t have just jumped off the ledge with both feet and tested the water before they checked to see if that’s what we should do in high school.”

Said DeMello, “This should have happened earlier. The bat companies are to blame. They kept adding technology to these bats. There were kids hitting balls out that you look at your pitching coach thinking. ‘What the heck did you call?’ And he’s thinking, ‘How did he hit that?’ There are kids getting fisted and hitting it 400 feet. It’s made a mockery of the game.

“It might be nice to see a pitcher get rewarded for making a quality pitch instead of having it fall for a base hit.”

Contact Bill Poindexter at billp@goldcountrymedia.com.