High-tech firm offers to detect corked bats

Most major league hitters probably don't even know the bat they use has a tomography. And since the two leagues declined to take up an Austin hightech firm on a recent offer, ``tomography'' - the technique of creating cross-sectional images of an object - most likely won't become a common part of the baseball lexicon.

In the wake of a summer of corked bats, Scientific Measurement Systems last week offered the use of its gamma-ray scanning process to evaluate any bats about which the question of tampering has been raised.

The firm's offer was made hours before the bat Houston Astro Billy Hatcher was using in a game with Chicago last Tuesday exploded upon impact with the ball, revealing a drill hole that had been filled with cork.

``I want to say right off the bat we had nothing to do with Billy Hatcher the other night,'' punned Jim Kay, SMS vice-president of finance at a news conference last week.

Hatcher was suspended for 10 days, and by the end of the week both the National and American Leagues had turned down the offer, stating they would stick with current detection procedures.

Company officials admit their motives in making the offer were partly commercial - who ever refused a little free publicity? - but they also exhibited deep concern about the integrity of what they called ``the national pastime.''

``Baseball has a storied history, it's a great game,'' said Kay, who played it at Austin High School and who admitted an affinity for the Astros and the Boston Red Sox. ``We've got to do everything we can to protect the sanctity of the game.''

The company had offered its services free of charge. Scanning a bat would take about 20 minutes, at a cost to the company of about $200. The company's technology is more commonly used by the military, the aerospace industry, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which bought one of the scanning devices for detecting any flaws in the new space shuttle.

The leagues now use an X-ray machine similar to those found in a dentist's office to evaluate suspect bats, according to Kay. But he said the SMS process gives pictures of a much stronger contrast, resulting in ``evidence that is incontrovertible.''

Reporters on hand to view a demonstration of the scanning process had a field day with the lighter side of the company's offer. ``Have you discovered any way to scientifically prove the Mets actually are a baseball team?,'' asked one. And when, in response to a question, Kay said his company's closest competitors in computed industrial tomography ``were located in Boston and outside San Francisco,'' another reporter piped up, ``So, none in any major-league cities...''

Still, the sight of a bat standing on its head, positioned between two futuristic-looking contraptions - the one to emit the rays, the other to receive them and transpose the resulting image onto a computer screen - offered an unsettling contrast to other ``images,'' those of bygone, simpler days in sports.

But as SMS President Larry Secrest noted, cheating in baseball, or any other sport, is not new. Stating that his father was a general manager for minor league teams during the 1940s and '50s, Secrest recalled that, ``at that time, the problem was rather one of adding more weight to the bats.''

Secrest said his company's offer was a ``response to a particular situation,'' but he added that he didn't think gamma-ray scans, drug tests, or any other such process would eliminate cheating.

``The human mind is infinitely creative,'' he said. ``I guess the real problem lies elsewhere, and we could discuss that for hours.''

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