TO many fans, baseball means tradition. To Michigan entrepreneur Steve Baum, baseball means tradition - and innovation. Mr. Baum has developed a new bat, patent pending, that he calls ``the equalizer.'' His goal, he says, is to combine the feel and sound of a traditional hardwood bat with the durability and economic benefit of aluminum.
Since the early 1970s, most non-professional teams have switched from hardwood to aluminum because it is nearly impossible to break, thereby saving hundreds of dollars in equipment costs.
Aluminum has changed the game of baseball in other ways, too. Bill Thurston, rules editor for the National Collegiate Athletic Association and baseball coach at Amherst College, observes that aluminum bats absorb the impact of the ball better than wooden bats.
In other words, aluminum has a larger ``sweet spot.'' The result: Batting averages on college teams have skyrocketed, games have gotten longer, and pitchers have largely lost the advantage of an inside pitch. Players with wooden bats must hit an inside pitch far from the bat's ``sweet spot''; not so with an aluminum bat's longer effective hitting area.
So different are the aluminum bat's characteristics, in fact, that players going on to the major leagues - where wood is used exclusively - often find the transition difficult, if not impossible, he says.
The Baum bat is designed as an alternative to aluminum and wood. Made of a high-tech wood composite, it differs structurally and functionally from other composite and graphite bats that contain no wood, Baum says.
And if anyone is partial to wood, says Hillerich & Bradsby spokesman Bill Williams, it's a professional baseball player. Hillerich & Bradsby, of Louisville, Ky., make the legendary Louisville Slugger, a hardwood bat first used by Pete (The Gladiator) Browning in 1884.
``Major league teams are scared to death of aluminum,'' says Mr. Williams. ``It doesn't stand a chance of being legalized in the pros, primarily because of the distance factor,'' he says. Aluminum bats would mean longer hits. ``Composite bats might stand a better chance,'' he says.
But non-wood composite bats still can't compete with aluminum, according to Williams. They're not as durable as aluminum, and until they can be mass-produced, their $100 price tag can't compete with aluminum ($85) or wood ($35). Baum has not set a price for his bat, but says it will be ``competitively priced with high-performance aluminum bats.''
Robert Collier, professor of mechanical engineering at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., says the Baum bat has exceeded expectations. Mr. Collier specializes in acoustics, and has spent the past year testing baseball bats with two graduate engineering students and members of the Tufts baseball team.
``We've combined laboratory testing and field evaluation to find out why hardwood bats work the way they do and why aluminum works the way it does,'' says Collier. ``We're testing the Baum bat for stiffness, strength, vibration, and acoustics. And, with regard to durability and performance, after 3,000 hits on the newest version of the Baum, it's comparing very favorably.''
ACCORDING to Collier, a common misconception about aluminum is that it lasts forever. Actually, an aluminum bat lasts about one season before it becomes ``work hardened'' - the point where the ball no longer pops off the bat. Collier says he and the Tufts research team believe the Baum bat will last longer than aluminum because of the ``superior elasticity'' of its surface material. According to Collier, the design of the wood composite can be adjusted to match the performance requirements of profession al teams (who want a bat that performs like hardwood), and non-professional teams (who may want a bat that performs more like aluminum).
Of course, to an acoustics specialist, sound is everything. ``People love the `crack' of the bat,'' says Collier. ``It means they're hearing the real thing.'' And the crack of the wood bat is very different from the metallic ring of aluminum, he notes. Their research shows the wood composite has the same acoustic ``signature'' as hardwood - it sounds like a wooden bat.
That still may not satisfy everyone. According to Coach Thurston, younger baseball players have grown up with the ``ping'' of aluminum and are unaccustomed to the sound of wood. ``In Japan, it's even worse,'' he says. ``Japanese players love the loud ring of the baseball bat. To them, it epitomizes the spirit of baseball.''
In America, the spirit of baseball may change from hardwood and aluminum to wood composite. Mike Stenhouse, former Minnesota Twin and Boston Red Sox outfielder, came to Tufts' playing fields this spring to try to break the Baum bat - a feat not yet accomplished. When he hit a ball near the bat's handle ``it didn't shatter,'' he said. ``A hit like that would shatter any hardwood bat.''
Meanwhile, the Detroit Tigers, the Boston Red Sox, and the Toronto Blue Jays all used Baum's bat during spring training and for pre-game batting practice - and it's still unbroken.