Editor's Note: This is the second of a three-part series examining wood and aluminum bats. On Friday, the final installment of the series will examine how the switch to wood bats would affect New Jersey.
In the summer of 2007, the heads of Essex County American Legion Baseball and the coaches decided to switch from aluminum bats to wood. The decision was a result of safety concerns. This came on the heels of a 2006 tragedy in Wayne, when a then 12-year-old pitcher was struck by a line drive in a little league baseball game. The incident made everyone's worst nightmare become all too real.
Steven Domalewski was pitching for his team when a line-drive struck him in the chest and made his heart stop. He went into a coma for several weeks and now has brain damage. His parents currently have a lawsuit against the bat company, little league baseball and the sporting goods chain which sold the bat.
As a result of his injuries, he cannot speak, stand, walk, eat or even use the bathroom on his own. Domalewski's injury sent shockwaves of fear throughout the state and the nation in the coming months. Questions about the safety of aluminum bats and how powerful those bats had become were being asked.
"I don't think it was being discussed as much before. I don't recall getting any calls about this," said the head baseball official for the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association. "It's sort of like you don't talk about the bad intersection until there's accidents and death."
Even before Domalewski's accident, the issue of safety had been a concern across the country, especially with the increased size and strength of players coupled with improved equipment.
In 2007, North Dakota became the first state in the country to make the switch to all wood, following the death of Brandon Patch, who was killed in Montana after the pitcher was hit with a line drive. Since then aluminum was also banned in New York City.
After Domalewski's accident, Patrick Diegnan, State Assemblyman of District 18, proposed a bill entitled Steven's Law, which would ban aluminum bats throughout the state for all players in organized sports under age 18.
The bill is currently pending and will expire in 2011 if it is not voted on before then. According to the bill, 15 deaths had occurred from batted balls with non-wood bats from 1991 - 2001, while only two deaths came from batted balls off of wood.
"It is a complicated issue and I don't believe that anyone has less than noble motives," Diegnan said. "There is no dispute that metal bats increase power, which is what kids want. But when it is recommended that the pitcher, first baseman and third baseman wear heart guards? The facts speak for themselves. It is awful to say, but I really think it will take one or more tragedies to convince folks of the need."
However, according to the Consumer Products Safety Commission, the statistics are not quite as stark. It states there were 17 deaths from batted balls during the same period, but eight of them were from non-wood bats, two from wood and the others are not specified.
"I think someone is going to get killed one of these days with aluminum," said South Orange/Maplewood legion coach Bob Drechsel. "It's the bat companies that control this."
Drechsel may have a point. Every coach interviewed has said that the bats today are light years ahead of what was being used in the seventies, eighties and even the nineties. Even the names of the bats are suggestive: Beast Youth baseball bat, Combat Da Bomb Adult baseball bat, Stealth Speed baseball bat, the Warrior Youth baseball bat, Hammer youth baseball bat, the Distance Youth baseball bat and the Vendetta Adult baseball bat are just a few. These bats are meant to hit the ball and hit it hard - no one picks one of these bats because they think it's safe.
Opponents of a non-wood ban would argue that there is no real difference between the safety involving a wooden bat or an aluminum bat. They point to the bat exit speed ratios, the fact that wood bats can splinter and shatter into dangerous shards of wood, and the fact that a pitcher can still be hit with a ball off of a wood bat.
A study done in Illinois, conducted in conjunction with the Illinois State High School Association and the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) conducted in 2007, determined that while aluminum produces more offense, it is not significantly more dangerous.
"I don't think that it's much more dangerous. I think it's overblown," said Millburn baseball head coach Daryl Palmieri.
Research conducted by School of Kinesiology and Recreation at Illinois State University found that there five injuries with aluminum bats out of 4,682 at bats, while there were only two injuries with wood in 4,462 at bats. None of the injuries involving a batted ball caused a player to miss playing time.
The pitcher is an inherently dangerous position. He's throwing the pitch anywhere from 70 - 90 mph, the ball comes off of the bat faster than 100 mph, with wood or aluminum, giving the pitcher less than half of a second to react.
"I wouldn't say it's inherently anymore dangerous whether it's wood or aluminum," White said. "By the time the pitcher ends his motion, he's only 55 or 56 feet away from the plate."
"If you have a guy throwing hard and a guy swinging hard, that's a bad combination," said CHS 2010 baseball co-captain Stephen Tamayo.
Those who watch professional baseball have seen plenty of players hit by balls off of wooden bats, including South Orange's own Joe Martinez, who was drafted by the San Francisco Giants in 2008 and took a line drive off of his head in '09, leaving him with a concussion and three fractures in his skull.
The Don't Take My Bat Away Coalition, comprised of parents, players and coaches argues that it's a misperception that aluminum is more dangerous than wood.
"Banning aluminum bats won't reduce the risk of injuries from batted balls, because the speed of the ball leaving today's aluminum bats is comparable to the speed of a ball off the best wood bat," says DTMBA.com. "Accidents are rare in baseball; but they can also happen with wood bats – yet no one says ban wood."
If you compare the thousands and thousands of at bats taken by high schoolers across the nation during a baseball season with the amount of serious injuries from batted balls, it does seem that they are very rare. But it's the type of thing that no one thinks about until they see it, and then it becomes an extremely scary reality.
"I've seen it a few times, and when you see a kid get hit with a ball, it is very scary," said West Essex baseball head coach Scott Illiano.
"If someone gets hit, I get worried," said 2009 Columbia High School grad, Marcus McGriff. "It doesn't really happen that often, but when it does, your heart just drops."
Players don't go into any sport expecting to get injured, and pitchers are no different - they're not playing scared, getting worried about a tough come-backer. But that can be the danger of it, no one expects it because it is so rare, so there is no preparation like the heart guards mentioned by Diegnan.
"When I get out there, it's not really an issue. I don't know if anyone thinks about that at all," said 2009 CHS grad, Jonny Rio, a former Cougar relief pitcher. "It's part of the game. It's not something you should be too concerned with. The chances are so slim."
Despite the fact that an increase in the chance of injury while using non-wood bats has never been conclusively proven, it does seem to be a matter of common knowledge. If there is a bigger sweet spot on an aluminum bat, which leads to more hits, is it not a safe assumption to say that there is a greater chance that the pitcher will be struck?
"I've seen a couple of close calls," said Cougar slugger and pitcher Andrew Rigassio. "I almost got hit last year when I was pitching against Seton Hall Prep. They hit a line-drive over my head and it was close. A couple of times last year, Joel [Brown-Christenson] almost got hit in the face."
Even further, if the ball does indeed jump off of an aluminum bat faster, harder and farther than with wood, then is it not that big of a leap to say that the chance of injury is greater, even if just by one percent?
And if the chance of injury is even one percent greater, doesn't that mean that aluminum is at least slightly more dangerous?