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

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

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.

In fact, Mr. Thurston, who has testified as an expert witness in lawsuits, cites many examples of youth players who have been injured by aluminum batted balls. Often, grievances brought by parents against manufacturers are resolved in out-of-court settlements, he says.

In a sport smitten with home runs, aluminum bats are regarded by some as akin to steroids, bestowing lesser players with raw hitting power.

"Aluminum bats have changed the game of baseball," says Rob Bishop, coach of the Miles City Junior College Pioneers, which has joined the growing ranks of college teams playing in wood bat conferences.

During his college playing days at South Dakota State University, coach Bishop studied the phenomenon of aluminum bats contributing to soaring numbers of home runs. The technology, he and Thurston say, has inflated batting averages, buoyed scores, reduced the importance of defense, extended the duration of games, and caused younger players to focus on homers rather than stroking base hits.

"A company cannot, on the one hand, boast that it's making bats which enable players to hit balls longer distances and, at the same time, say aluminum bats aren't boosting power," Bishop says. "How far the ball flies is in direct correlation to how fast it comes off the bat."

Hillerich & Bradsby's Redman notes that in 2002, the Consumer Products Safety Commission examined the purported dangers of aluminum bats and concluded there was not compelling proof to declare they were unsafe.

Mr. Patch believes the companies are balking because of huge profits derived from aluminum bats. Hillerich & Bradsby, however, says it would actually be more lucrative if the company sold only wooden bats, which easily break and have to be replaced.

"The bottom line is that we have great sympathy for the Patch family. What happened to their son breaks our hearts," Redman says. "Obviously, this is a very emotional issue for them. We respect that, but for us it is a scientific issue and one that we believe should be resolved with facts."

Former Major League pitcher Jeff Ballard, a Montanan who played for both the Baltimore Orioles and Pittsburgh Pirates, says he shared the Patch's concerns but he's been persuaded otherwise by data.

Ferocious line drives, fueled by balls impacting the legendary "sweet spots" on bats, are going to occur regardless of whether the material is made of aluminum or wood, Ballard, now a Legion coach, adds. "I've been hit by balls coming off both kinds of bats and there's no way I could have avoided them. Baseball has its risks but as a game it's still very safe."

In Miles City, tears still well up in Mr. Patch's eyes as he explains the difficulty of going to a game and hearing the sounds of aluminum bats. As a tribute to the memory of his son, all youth baseball teams in Miles City, including the junior college Pioneers, now use wood and offer opponents a symbolic wood bat at the start of every game.

For Bishop's squad, the move has had a huge impact on his team's offensive output. Three years ago, Pioneer players socked 57 home runs in 50 games with aluminum bats before converting to wood. So far this season, the team has notched just five homers in 40 games. He points out, however, that last season a team from a wood conference beat a team using aluminum for the national junior college championship.

"There isn't a coach on the planet who will tell you that from the standpoint of developing sound fundamental skills in players, wood bats isn't the way to go," Bishop says. "It's baseball like it used to be played and it's a great game to watch."

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