Sports

Baseball the way its meant to be played

By CASEY OLSON

Sports editor

The old school, baseball purists love it. Pitching staffs also don’t mind.

For the sixth spring in a row, The Northwest Athletic Association of Community Colleges (NWAACC) is allowing fans and players to hear the actual “crack” of the bat. The 27-team baseball league, which includes two-year schools from Washington and Oregon, was the first conference in the country to go to an exclusive wooden bat league before the 1999 season.

“I still have to tell high school kids,” said current Green River Community College baseball coach Matt Acker.

The league made the transition during a time when the NCAA was discussing doing the same because of too much scoring and several injuries to pitchers due to line drives being hit up the middle, according to Dick McClain, the executive director of the NWAACC.

“Then the NCAA didn’t,” he said. “But our people decided to switch and then they liked it.”

The suggestion came from then-Walla Walla CC coach Ken Johnson and was voted into rule on a two-year trial basis. Since then, there has been no talk about switching back.

“I’ve haven’t heard a word,” said McClain, who also coaches a high-school summer team in Corvallis, Ore.

The NWAACC’s move to wood was partially because of the safety factor, but a bulk of the issue was making the junior college league more attractive to professional scouts.

“They found out that (the NWAACC) was getting drafted a lot heavier,” Acker said. “It makes you learn how to hit the ball on the sweet spot.”

The Major League Baseball drafting rules allow community college players to sign professional contracts after either their first or second year of school — compared to the end of their junior year at a four-year institution.

“I think it’s a great deal for (the NWAACC) because of the way the drafting rules work,” said Federal Way High School baseball coach Eric Fiedler. “It gives the pro scouts the ability to get a look at them swinging a wood bat.”

Fiedler says a lot of his high school players swing wood during practice because it teaches a player to swing correctly.

“Metal bats are just so forgiving,” Fiedler said. “When you get jammed, the ball still goes. When you use wood, your bat breaks.”

But transitioning to wood bats in high school isn’t something that is even on the radar, according to Washington Interscholastic Activities Association officials. The governing body of high school sports in the state is happy with new regulations that were instituted on metal bats back in the late 1990s.

Metal bats currently must have a -3 length-to-weight ratio — meaning a bat 34-inches long, must weigh 31 ounces. Thinner and lighter metals were being used to make bats in the -5 range in the late ‘90s.

The ratio changes were put into motion after the NCAA made some noise about returning to wood bats because of numerous injuries, as well as the high-scoring games that were being played. The 1998 NCAA National Championship Game between USC and Arizona State ended with a 21-14 score. But the metal bat companies prevailed after agreeing to the -3 rule and threatening lawsuits.

Studies have shown that a ball off a wood bat can travel at speeds of about 90 miles per hour, whereas a ball off an aluminum bat can travel between 100 to 123 mph.

“The game really changes when you go to wood,” said Green River sophomore catcher John White.

To see the effects the wooden bat has had on the NWAACC, all you have to look at is the Green River record book. Darrell Cloud holds the all-time record for home runs with 17 during the 1990 season. In the five seasons with wood bats, nobody has hit more than six.

“There is a ton less scoring,” Acker said.

The bats have turned the NWAACC into more of a pitching, defense and base-running game — instead of wait-around-for-a-three-run-home-run baseball.

“It’s totally different,” White said. “They are not even the mirror-image of each other. In high school, we would sit around and wait for something to happen, like a home run or a gapper. Now, our game is to get somebody on base and get him to second.”

The transition from metal to wood was tough on White as a freshman last year. White hit near .400 his senior season at Colfax High School, an average which fell to around .250 as a freshman at GRCC.

“I struggled at first,” White said. “Pitchers pitch you a lot different. You don’t see as many offspeed pitches. Now, they start you out with inside fastballs. Pitchers want you to hit it off your hands or break your bat.”

At Green River, players are responsible for buying their own bats, which run anywhere from $30 to $100 each. Compared to $300 for a top-of-the-line metal bat. The school does supply the team with several composite Baum Bats for use during practice. The Baum Bats are part wood and part styrofoam, making them unbreakable.

“A good hitter might need two to five (wood) bats a year,” Acker said. “A crappy hitter might need seven. I have players with nails in their practice bats and duct tape. They have their practice bats and their gamers.”

But as strongly as the NWAACC feels about the advantages of wood bats, the league has no illusion that they will be a trendsetter in the amateur baseball world. It was the only college league in the western United States to use wood until earlier this month. That’s when the Mon-Dak Junior College League switched over from metal. The Mon-Dak includes schools from Montana and North and South Dakota and their decision to switch came after a Miles City (Mont.) American Legion pitcher was killed by a metal bat-propelled line drive to the head in July.

“Everybody is very happy with our decision,” McClain said.

But nobody more than the pitching staffs around the NWAACC.

Sports editor Casey Olson: 925-5565, sports@fedwaymirror.com

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