Going Batty Over Aluminum

Words of Wissman

There always seemed to be something funky about college baseball.

All the college games I have gone to see in my hometown while growing up, all the college world series games I have watched on television, and all the Harvard games I have gone to see this season, have had something fishy about them.

Compared to the major leagues-the apotheosis of the game, college baseball seemed a good deal less real, less authentic than college basketball and college football when compared to their professional counterparts.

It used to be that there was an easy explanation for this-the existence of the minor leagues. The elaborate pre-majors professional system provoked scores of high school phenoms to eschew their parents' wishes and scam to Cuba, Kansas, or Paris, Texas, to begin blazing their trails to the majors.

But, in large part, that scene is gone. While the hats remain, many minor league teams have hit hard times, the victims of franchise belt-tightening.

As result of this minor league decline and an increased emphasis on the importance of education, most of the best high school players are going to college before going professional. Roger Clemens (Texas), Will Clark (Mississippi State), and Ron Darling (Yale) are good examples.

The upshot of all this is that college baseball is increasingly serving the same function as college basketball and college football. It is becoming the first place that pro scouts look for prospects. It is increasingly becoming more and more important to the game of baseball as whole.

But still, there always seemed to be something odd about it that I couldn't quite put my finger on.

Then, while covering the Crimson's 14-1 win over Boston University in the Beanpot tournament at Fenway Park last week, it hit me. As I sat stuffing my face with hot dogs, peanuts and dining hall spinach eggrolls and looking out over one of the great sanctums of the game, I realized what had been bothering me this season-spinach.

Spinach doesn't belong in eggrolls, I thought.

With that resolved, I attacked a deeper source of discomfort-collegiate aluminum bats.

With every hit, Fenway seemed to cringe at the sound of the bats of college ball the same way a tenured Harvard professor would if she were told that she had to write a book review of an Ivana Trump novel. The artificiality of the bats was completely out of place in the tradition-rich park, and, upon further thought, seemed to be completely out of place in the game in general.

You hear the arguments for aluminum bats all the time. They are cheaper, they have a bigger sweet-spot, and they hit farther. Furthermore, they don't cause splinters and, in general, they make games more exciting.

These are all good arguments-for tee-ball, or grade school, or even high school. But not for college.

College athletic budgets are certainly big enough for a few extra bats. What's more, the price of the new aluminum bats rolling out of the factories these days leaves one thinking that wooden bats might even be cheaper.

Plus, any arguments for aluminum completely leave out the bottom line. In addition to sounding worse, aluminum bats create a major performance chasm between collegiate and professional baseball.

First, the power of the bats makes them much more batter-friendly, a fact which inflates collegiate batting and ERA figures.

And second, the different feel of the bats alters the optimum hitting style slightly in the collegiate game, confusing fans and scouts who are trying to conjecture as to what a college player's hitting would be like in the majors.

In all, the use of aluminum bats makes the collegiate game different from that of the majors and, in that sense, less legitimate.

As one scout said recently, using aluminum bats in college baseball is a bit like using round balls in collegiate football.

College baseball is faced with a choice. It can either scrap the "pings" or it can continue to supposedly save costs and be considered a different and less legitimate game than the pros. The choice is clear.

Of course, there is a third option. The major and minor leagues could begin to allow the use of aluminum. A person needs to go no further than to imagine Cal Ripken Jr. actually hitting .300 to realize that this would be a mad, radical, and lamentable experiment.