This may sound like an altruistic plea, but baseball and wooden bats belong together. Those governing American Legion baseball in this state are inclined to agree, as board members have decided to eliminate the usage of aluminum in favor of a wooden-bat league.
This landmark change takes effect for the 2011 summer session, which is currently under way. Gone is the ringing “ping!” sound that ensues whenever an aluminum bat strikes a baseball. Expect to hear a “crack!” at your local Legion ball field, a natural emanation that figures to add great theater to this season.
“There seems to be a shift towards sentimentality,” said Hurd Post 14 coach Jim Dawber.
For the vast majority of players, this marks their first foray into the world of utilizing wooden bats in a competitive setting. Coaches are bracing themselves for low-scoring affairs, hence why they are stressing the importance of hit-and-run, base stealing and bunting – small ball tendencies that tend to get lost when cross-examining the dependency of aluminum.
“With the wooden bats, you’re not going to get those check swing 385-foot home runs. You’ve got to earn it,” notes Brad Dean, the head coach for Upper Deck/Post 86 and former Cumberland Post 14 mentor. “You might as well get used to it when you’re a kid.”
Anyone who pays close attention to the Legion playoffs – particularly when the scene shifts to the Final Four – is aware that games tend to get out of hand rather easily. It’s a time when offenses are front and center and pitchers become endangered species, hence why the scoreboard often reads 13-9, 15-11 or 16-14. Such outbursts also reflect the advances in technology that have allowed aluminum bats to dominate the scene.
“The ball just flies off the aluminum,” said Dean. “Some of the kids who are playing third base in Legion, you could have a 14- or 15-year-old kid at third and a kid who’s 19 at the plate. He turns on a fastball and that 14- or 15-year-old player could be in trouble. I’m not saying that can’t happen with a wooden bat, but the frequency is not as great.”
Sensing that something needed to be done in order to protect the integrity of the game – not to mention preserving the arms of teenage pitchers and speeding up the process – Legion officials reached the conclusion that wood is the best way to go. According to state commissioner John Parente, it’s believed Rhode Island is the first state to adopt wooden bats in a Legion forum.
Those eager to see what kind of impact this aluminum-to-wood conversion would entail didn’t have to wait long. As of Wednesday afternoon 34 contests had been posted on the newly formed Legion website – leaguelineup.com/risralb. In a true indicator that players are still getting their feet wet, a whopping 24 contests were decided by three runs or less. Conversely there have been 10 games played in which one team reached double-digits. In the same game, the opposing team never came close to scoring 10 runs.
“The offenses are clearly going to be subdued, no doubt about it,” said Dawber. “You might have a .400 hitter with aluminum who becomes a .300 hitter with wood. There’s going to be more failure in the batter’s box.”
Added Dean, “A team that doesn’t have the offensive power that another team has can hang in there a little longer. This time with a wooden bat, you’ve got to put the bat on the ball. You can’t hit it down by the handle and still expect to get a base hit.”
The infusion of wood has also allowed games to be completed in a timely manner. Tuesday’s game between Collette Vacations Post 79 and Navigant Credit Union Post 85 started at 5:30 p.m. and was wrapped up by 6:50. That’s the definition of brisk.
Naturally the cost of purchasing enough wooden bats was taken under advisement. Some teams budgeted enough funds to purchase enough bats to start the season and have some wiggle room in case more are needed later on. Wood bats have a tendency to break, after all.
In the case of Navigant Credit Union, the Woonsocket-based team staged a fundraiser to purchase 12 bats from In The Zone Sports Inc., a Fall River-based company. Some kids have already purchased their own wooden instrument, believing a bat tailored to their individual needs will better suit them.
“You’re going to break a few bats, but as opposed to spending $200-300 on an aluminum bat, what’s the difference?” said Dean. “I’m old school. I like the idea of picking up wood versus aluminum.”
Splitting in two … divisions, that is
Also effective this summer is the creation of two eight-team subdivisions. Naturally they are divided geographically, hence the north and south subtitles. It’s a dramatic change from the old one division format, yet adjustments were made after several programs decided to pool their resources and combine forces. Think of the co-op high school hockey programs that have surfaced in recent years.
The most notable merge took place in Warwick, where New England Frozen Lemonade and Shields Post 43 – once separate entities – now operate under the same umbrella. Also players from East Providence, Barrington and Bristol have teamed up to form East Bay/Riverside Post 10.
Doing what’s best
Here’s the background story if you happen to attend a Collette/Post 79 contest this summer and see Matt Bergeron lurking outside the dugout. Bergeron is an assistant coach at Rhode Island College, where one of his players this spring was Joe Brooks, a freshman and ex-St. Raphael Academy pitcher. Brooks still had a year of Legion eligibility remaining, which in turn forced Bergeron, Post 79’s boss the past few seasons, to render a decision.
According to NCAA rules, you can’t coach the same player in the summertime that you did in the spring. Rather than put Brooks in a tough situation, Bergeron opted to step aside for this summer, ceding all managerial responsibilities to Ray Ventura.