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Jim Caple
Softball Needs Aluminums Foil

The performance enhancers have ruined the game.

Players who could barely hit the ball out of the infield are smashing windshields in the parking lot. Run totals are soaring like gasoline prices. There's talk of altering the mound to help the pitchers. The game is scarcely recognizable from what it was just a decade ago.

I'm talking, of course, about softball bats.

What a bunch of hypocrites we are. If a major leaguer visits BALCO to boost his run production, the attorney general launches a federal investigation and fans jam the phone system to bitch on talk radio. Sammy Sosa gets caught with cork in his bat and people want him suspended, then excommunicated. We whine that home run records don't mean anything anymore. But if a company manufactures a softball bat that will add 30 feet to your hitting, everyone on the team immediately reaches for the wallet and ponies up $20 apiece to buy the club in time for the next game.

Aluminum bats have been around for more than three decades but it is only in recent years that the various alloy and composite clubs have gotten wildly out of control, performing metallurgy miracles by turning cans of corn into glittering home runs. The new bats allow hitters to feel so much like Barry Bonds that after finishing their home run trots, I expect them to snub their teammates and go sit in a leather recliner. How do these bats do it? Hell if I know. Just reading the bat specifications -- "half & half technology," "composite grip," "rotation index" -- requires an advanced degree in engineering. Here's the actual description for the DeMarini F2 bat:

"Designed for maximum distance. The body has a tape-wrapped carbon phenolic (TWCP) shield bonded to a thin-wall aluminum substrate. The Aerospace Grade Graphite Composite is especially developed for strong and uniform properties. The 'aerospike' telescopes into position to increase aerodynamic performance. Maximum range: 7,400 KM."

Whoops. That isn't the description of the DeMarini F2 -- that's a description of a TRIDENT C-4 intercontinental ballistic missile, as you probably guessed by the 7,400 kilometer range. The DeMarini F2 can propel a ball much farther. And costs more.

At least steroids require an athlete to make some investment (weight-training, painful injections, shrunken testicles, acne). The only investment required for the enhanced softball bats is a credit card with a high enough spending limit. A top of the line composite bat can go for $350, and you better be careful which one you buy. ASA Softball lists 14 bats on its banned list this year, including the Miken Ultra, which no major softball organization approves, and the Miken Ultra II, which is approved by only one.

Golf has a similar problem with its titanium clubs and modern balls that carry farther, but the difference is that in golf, someone else's equipment doesn't necessarily affect your game -- you can still use your own clubs and play the course the same as always. In softball, the bats have pretty much taken away the game's most enjoyable aspect -- playing defense. Infielders have become lawn ornaments. Playing defense means just standing around waiting for a batter to get just under a pitch and hit a flyout to the warning track. It's not softball anymore. It's home run derby.

Worse, balls are jumping off the bats so fast that you still need to wear a cup driving away for post-game beers. Deb Holtkamp, an ASA commissioner in St. Paul, says she's seen pitchers wearing hockey helmets to protect themselves. The pitcher's rubber was moved from 46 to 50 feet several years ago and she says there is talk of moving it back even further and moving the bases to 65 feet.

Moving the bases back? You know what that means, don't you? That's right. Even more throwing errors. Just what softball needs.

"The new bats have completely changed the game," says Chris Gallagher. "Guys who have no business hitting the ball out of the park are hitting it over the fence. And the reaction time has decreased substantially, not only for the pitchers but for the corner players, too."

Gallagher decided to do something about it. Last summer he started a wood bat league in Glendale, Arizona. "We started taunting the players. 'How far can you really hit a softball?' and 'Men with big egos need not apply,'" Gallagher says. "It caught on quick. We had a tournament in October, the Wood Bat Classic. The guys loved that defense was brought back into the game. Instead of outfielders playing 290 feet from home plate, they were playing 220. The games were closer and lower-scoring, like 6-5.

"There is no strategy for some big 6-3 gorilla to hit a ball 300 feet. In the wood bat league there's strategy."

Gallagher is onto something. He says he's received several calls from other park directors around the country. It's only a matter of time before others rediscover the joy of wood bats, of again hitting home runs that mean something and fielding grounders without risking a vasectomy.

In the meantime, here are two simple rules that will make softball more enjoyable for everyone this summer.

1. If you can't explain how the bat is made, you can't use it. Look, I'm not a Luddite. You can still use aluminum if you like, but no more quadruple-walled alloys with bladders of liquid nitrogen.

2. Swing the bat. Nothing drives me nuts more than a guy who gets into the box and refuses to swing until he gets a pitch belt-high in the strike zone and fitted with a global positioning device. A 12-inch ball is lobbed up there so nice and easily that a child could hit it, and suddenly these morons are as picky as Ted Williams. Listen, people. This isn't the major leagues. This isn't even baseball. This is softball. If you're really that good a hitter, you should be able to hit anything in -- and out of -- the strike zone.

Jim Caple

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