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In Little League batter's box, it's safety vs. homers

By Todd WilkinsonCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 22, 2005


"It was a sweet, beautiful night for baseball."

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That's how Spud and Debbie Patch remember the final moments of their son's life on the mound - right up to a jarring and fatal ping.

On July 25, 2003, 18-year-old Brandon Patch, a southpaw pitcher for the Miles City Mavericks American Legion team, was killed after a line drive rocketed off an aluminum bat and struck him in the head.

Now, almost two years later and in an attempt to prevent future tragedies, his parents and others are on a crusade to see the national pastime, at all levels, revert to wood bats.

This week, the Patches watched Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer sign an unprecedented resolution calling upon American Legion baseball, with its thousands of teams nationally to adopt wood bats out of concern that aluminum counterparts propel balls at dangerous speeds.

"We have a responsibility to protect our young people in their sports endeavors," says Governor Schweitzer. "Sometimes, common sense solutions have to come from an unlikely place like Montana."

The debate over aluminum has raged for a generation in bleacher seats on four continents. Grass-roots campaigns to ban aluminum at local levels have advanced in, among other places, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York City, California, and Florida.

Yet Montana's action, inspired by these working-class parents from a dusty cowboy town, is the first time a state has officially taken a stand.

Since their invention in the 1970s as a durable replacements for breakable lumber, aluminum bats have supplanted wood almost entirely in youth baseball. More than 4.1 million are made in the United States each year and commonly retail for upward of $350 apiece.

Following their son's death, and those of dozens of other players they say have been killed or hurt in several states over the past decade, the Patches felt compelled to become activists. Spud, a grocery store meat cutter, and Debbie, who operates a tanning salon, went to the state legislature after being rebuffed by American Legion officials, who said the indictment against aluminum was unwarranted.

"One gentleman told me we would never see the abolition of aluminum bats in his lifetime," Mrs. Patch says. "I told him maybe not in his lifetime, but that doesn't mean it won't happen in mine."

They originally had sought an across-the-board prohibition on aluminum bats in Montana youth baseball. Yet, fearing the ban could trigger widespread consumer panic and encourage a flurry of lawsuits, major batmakers flew into Helena and joined a coalition of the largest youth-baseball governing bodies to get a resolution, rather than a law, that merely advises American Legion to eschew aluminum.

"The truth of the matter is that trying to address this issue through a state legislature was the wrong way to go about it," says Jim Darby, vice president of promotions for Easton Sports, which had sued the NCAA for $250 million in 2000 when it tried to impose tough restrictions on aluminum bats. "If people believe this needs to be studied, let's do it."

Manufacturers strongly challenge the Patches' assertions of danger. Given the 20 million players in the US, the number of pitches hurled each day, the number of balls hit, and the small number of young people seriously injured, baseball and softball are actually two of the safest team sports, says Rick Redman, vice president with Hillerich & Bradsby Co., maker of the famous "Louisville Slugger."

But Bill Thurston, the head baseball coach at Amherst College and former editor of the NCAA Rules Committee, says the Patch tragedy is no anomaly.