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Wood bats better than helmets for pitchers
StoryDiscussionBy Ted Sillanpaa Posted: Sunday, March 28, 2010 12:00 am (7) Comments

It’s impossible to understand the controversy over the use of metal softball and baseball bats in upper age groups until you have a family member pitching in game where the high-tech hitting sticks are being used.

My youngest son, now 14, pitches for elite-level baseball teams. It became clear from watching him pitch from high school distance (60 feet, 6 inches from home plate) that a well struck ball off a metal bat leaves a pitcher virtually no time to react to a rocket back to the mound.

I knew that metal bats that cost hundreds of dollars enable players to hit the ball harder and further than their respective physical gifts should allow. So, we quietly waited and hoped my son would be an elusive target on the mound. It’s hard to hide a 6-foot-1, 165-pound eighth-grader, you know?

A Marin Catholic High School pitcher remains hospitalized after being hit in the head with a line drive hit with a metal bat. The result is that Marin County Athletic League baseball teams, including Justin-Siena, will use only wood bats for the remainder of this season.

It was only a matter of time before a tragedy forced leagues to really consider the safety of metal bats. Somebody had to suffer a life-threatening injury before everybody paid attention.

Look, I’m an old-school baseball guy. The idea of wearing safety helmets to pitch seems silly. If too much protective gear is required, the game’s just not right. I’m absolutely in favor of using wooden bats.

My kids and their buddies starting using those lightweight metal bats to hit balls to the moon in the 1990s.

My older sons played at the same huge ball park that I played at during my early teen years. It’s 335 feet down the left field line, 345-ish in the gap in left field. The center field fence is 410 feet from the plate. It’s a cavernous yard.

Using wooden bats, I had a reputation as a bit of a power hitter in 1972. I hit four balls off of the green wall in left and hit a one-hopper off the 410-mark in center. Nobody hit balls over those fences with wood bats.

By the time my older sons hit their teens, kids were pounding balls over that wall all the time. When a nondescript 13-year-old hit three home runs in one game — I knew the game was forever changed.

Two springs ago, I saw 12-year-old boys hitting home runs more than 300 feet over softball field fences. The typical 12-year-old plays on a Little League field with fences 200 feet from home plate. Metal bats makes Little League parks nearly too small by half.

And, sure, the metal bats made my sons better hitters. It didn’t matter, though, because they were all pitchers and the risk outweighed the reward. A long home run versus a line drive between the eyes? An easy call for a dad.

Everything changed when the family welcomed the youngest brother to the fraternity of pitchers. His fastball was clocked at over 80 mph — last year at age 13. The taller a pitcher is, the closer he is to home plate when he releases the ball. My youngest appears to be on top of home plate at the point of release.

My kid pitched in a 13-under league with teams from throughout the region. League games were played on high school fields where he pitched from 60 feet, 6 inches. Tournaments were played on softball fields where the pitching distance was 54 feet or so.

One weekend in San Jose, my son struck out the first six hitters he faced. Then, he got a fastball up to a tiny kid at the bottom of the batting order. The kid reached up and hit a line drive off the barrel that smashed off my son’s left kneecap and sent him sprawling into the dirt.

After leaving that game and spending a week watching deep bruise slowly subside, my son pitched again. Three innings into that game, he was decked by another shot up the middle. This one hit just below the right kneecap, at the top of the shin. By the time coaches helped him to a spot behind the dugout, he had a baseball-sized lump and couldn’t put any weight on what we were sure was a seriously damaged leg.

Only blind luck keep those line drives from hitting him in the head. We still made two trips to hospital emergency rooms in successive weeks. It was sobering to know that, even being a fairly gifted pitcher who doesn’t get hit hard often, my son was helpless against a well struck ball off of a metal bat.

We bought a clear, hard plastic mask for my son to try. No kid wants to be riding that first wave of safety-first gear. I almost had him convinced that the bench jockeys who heckled the mask would be quiet after four scoreless innings. Then, maybe, other kids would wear masks.

My son didn’t go for it. Too bad.

There’s no good reason to keep putting kids at risk by allowing bat manufacturers to make a fortune of metal bats that give hitters more pop than they need. Those bats can cost $400 — and kids can buy three, four quality wood bats for less than that.

Those safety tests are meaningless. I saw my kid, a skilled pitcher, hit by line drives in successive weeks. After two trips to the hospital, I promise, the bats aren’t safe enough.

Register Sports Writer Ted Sillanpaa can be reached at 256-2220 or

Posted in Ted-sillanpaa on Sunday, March 28, 2010 12:00 am Updated: 10:48 pm.

IVANO SAYS (CONT'D): So why am I posting this on the LNOSTRA-COSTA Blog: It so happens that I have a 12 year old Grandson, who plays in the Morgan Hill Pony Baseball League and who, on occasions, takes the mound and pitches. I worry that what happened to Gunner might happen to Kristian (my grandson). And I'm sure many of you readers of this blog have sons or grandsons (or perhaps even daughters - granddaughters) who pitch for Little League Teams and have the same concerns that I do. If so, I urge you to let your concerns be known to League Administrators, both at the local and the national level. It's only through your vocal efforts that things will change. Remember, our concern must not be how well our sons or grandsons pitch or how hard they hit the ball. As parents and Grandparents it is their safety that must be our primary concern.


TED said...


The link above should take you to a site with Louisville Slugger wood bats by can see that for most levels of play — they’re not expensive given that the metal bats are around $100 — at least — and go up to $400.

Here’s the key...

When I was a kid, the league or school team provided a bag full of bats. When they broke, we’d toss them. Individual youngsters didn’t buy their own bats back then. So, the league or school saved on the old, cheaper aluminum bats.

Now...all kids buy their own metal bats. So, leagues and teams don’t have to argue that they can’t afford to use wood bats. Maybe a league or team could buy 3, 4 bats in case a kid really NEEDS one...but, the cost is being handed down to the parents who already pay for metal bats.


IVAN(O) said...

Thanks Ted for all your hardwork.
I think it's going to be a long hard up hill battle to eliminate metal bats unless the State outlaws them. Hopefully, some industrious soul out their will come up with a suitable design for a pitchers' helmet that gives some semblances of protection at least to the temple area.

BTW: I remember when the San Jose Police started their downtown bike patrol (the ones you peddle with your feet), The riders wore baseball caps. When suggested by a certain Captain that they should wear bike helmets for obvious safety reasons, it drew stong opposition from the riders because they (the helmets) weren't as "macho" looking as the baseball cap and it would make them (the riders) look "silly". Fortunately sounder minds prevailed (some time later) and the bike riders had to wear helmets.

Even more ludicrous, when the Department wanted to make it madatory that Police Officers wear protective vests (the ones that stop bullets)it drew strong oppositon from certain senior officers (backed by the Police Officers Association) who maintained that the vests made them uncomfortable and would hinder them from doing their jobs properly. In order to mandate this provision for the majority, the Department had to compromise and "grandfather" the senior officers allowing them not to wear the vest. Fortunately these officers "dodged the bullet" and are now retired. Sempre Avanti ivn


Wasn't there a pitcher for the SF Giants who was hit in the face area with a ball batted off a wooden bat? I seem to recall that it seriously injured him. Wooden bats may not be the total answer. Maybe you're right, Ivano. Helmets for pitchers may be the way to go. ss

IVAN(0) said...

This is in response to Saratoga Sam's inquiry re a serious injury suffered by a San Francisco Giant Pitcher last year.

Sam: You are right. There was a pitcher for the Giants seriously hurt last year by a ball batted off a wooden bat. Luckily he recovered. In the 1950's Herb Score,a young phenom pitcher for the Cleveland Indians (he supposely was going to be the next Bob Feller)was struck in the face by a ball batted off a wooden bat. He survived, however, he suffered from double vision after the incident and he had to give up his career.

Some of us can remember when hockey players including the Goalie didn't wear helmets of any kind, and football players didn't wear face guards. Helmets and other protective gear for the head and face has been slow in gaining acceptance -- usually resisted by the players and coaches who argue that they (the helmets) will impact negatively of the players abilty to play the game or that it's not traditional. To my knowledge the play of modern football players and hockey players
has not diminished and tradition be damned when it comes to player safety. Ivn

Johnny Coltavita said...

Ivano: Did you see that wood bat splinter and almost get the third baseman that other night in the Giant game? I don't think wood bats are all that safe. JC

IVAN(O) said...

Yes. Johnny, I did see that bat splintering incident in the Giant Game. I also heard KNBR talk show hosts talk about it on the radio. They asserted that wood bats as now made are unsafe and strongly urged that wood bat manufactures re-think the way they make them. Their assertion was that wood bats can be made without them splintering in the manner that they do now. Sempre Avanti. Ivano

IVAN(0) said...


Injured pitcher Gunnar Sandberg to go home

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Courtesy Marin Catholic

Marin Catholic College Preparatory High School student Gunnar Sandberg.

37 PDT San Francisco -- A Marin Catholic High School pitcher who suffered a near-fatal head injury after being hit by a line drive March 11 has made significant progress in his recovery and is expected to return home from the hospital today, his family said.

Gunnar Sandberg, 16, of Kentfield is scheduled to be discharged from a San Francisco rehabilitation hospital, almost two months after the accident that left him in a coma for three weeks.

Sandberg, a sophomore, has undergone extensive physical, occupational and speech therapy, and will have to wear a helmet until a portion of his skull can be replaced, his sister Kalli Sandberg wrote in an online journal.

Sandberg is scheduled to throw out the first pitch at the A's versus Giants game May 23, as well as at the Marin Catholic versus Justin Siena game Thursday at AT&T Park.

- Carolyn Jones

Anonymous said...

And where are the updates and comments regarding the MAJOR LEAGUE Pitcher struck by a line drive off f a WOODEN Bat. It can happen no matter what bat is used.

Ivano Franco Comelli said...

To annonymous above: Thanks for your comment. In another article published by the San Francisco Chronicle on April 27, It was reported that The North Coast Section of Managers (NCS) rejected the use of Wood bats for the up coming postseason. According to the Chron, Gil Lemmon, NCS Commissioner said the following:

"After weeks of research, the thing that finally stood out to me is the number of line drives that have injured pitchers in major league baseball," he said. "That showed to me, regardless of equipment, that kind of injury occurs. Banning non-wood bats would not make it safer in my mind."

Lemmon pointed to other possible equipment mandates in the future - helmets for pitchers, base coaches and infielders, along with mouth and face guards. "We need to keep talking on this issue and make suggestions to the (National Federation)," he said

The latter paragraph pretty well coincides with my beliefs. The banning of metal bats is not the total answer. Protective gear that especially protects the temple area and the heart area of the young pitchers is absoulutely essential.
BTW: The Major Leaguer's are adults and have a Union who is suppose to look out for their safety concerns. Little Leaguers depend on their parents to make the right decisions for them.

TED said...

Professional athletes are paid to face a certain amount of danger AND they are world-class athletes. They protect themselves by making sure metal bats are never used in pro baseball.

Our young baseball players require a measure of protection that they might not realize they need.


Anonymous said...

"If lawmakers want to protect the pitcher, they should require the pitcher wear protection -- perhaps a firm-fitting batting helmet, a mouth piece, or a plastic face shield like the one worn by Detroit Pistons guard Rip Hamilton of the NBA."
_Jim Seimas, Sports Reporter, Santa Cruz Sentinel, in his article:
"Out of Left Field: Swapping Metal bats for wood won't protect the Pitcher"


Did you see the nice article about Gunnar in the San Fran Chron today?

He was at the Giants-A's game yesterday and threw out the first pitch. The article says that the Marin League is using wood bats and requiring pitchers to wear helmets. Certainly a step forward.


TED said...

Ivan: For whatever it’s worth the league pitchers aren’t wearing helmets.