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Column: College baseball deserves wood bats

“That ball went right past the head of Foote!” Seton Hall’s radio guy said after one of Seton Hall’s players lined a ball right back at the Tiger baseball team’s junior left-handed pitcher Tyler Foote. Everyone in the press box laughed at the play on words, including myself.

But if the ball had been hit a little lower, or if Foote’s reflexes hadn’t done their job so well, we would have been dealing with a very different situation. We might have been waiting for an ambulance. We might have been wondering whether a young man was concussed or even alive.

In many ways, college baseball is a lot more like high school ball than it is the MLB. Games are relatively sparsely attended; fields are almost always the same shape and rarely feature outfield bleachers; and players will switch positions routinely (Tiger senior infielder Jonathan York was recently named Ivy League Pitcher of the Week). And, like they do in high school, the players use metal bats.

Maybe metal bats were first used in college because they were what high school players were used to, though that seems like selling college players short. The problem is, despite what it may look like, college baseball is not high school baseball.

Though — unfortunately for us fans — the NCAA isn’t chock-full of Major League talent, college players are quite often as old and as big as MLB players. Orioles third baseman Manny Machado, for example, was still 20-years-old and 6 feet 2 inches, 180 pounds when he made the AL All-Star team last year. Princeton has 23 players heavier than that and 12 players 6 foot 2 or taller on its roster this season. Sure, college student-athletes are smaller than MLB players on average, but plenty of guys in the NCAA stack up with big leaguers in size.

They may come in being used to metal bats, but college players looking to make it at the next level will have to get used to wood sooner or later, and they do. Metal bats first came into use in the 1970s when college baseball was almost unheard of. Today, while it’s still far more common for players to find MLB success out of high school, college baseball is seen as a legitimate proving ground for Major League hopefuls, and teams are increasingly willing to draft players who went to college. So why shouldn’t college baseball look more like the MLB?

Plenty of college players have already played in wood bat leagues as high schoolers, and that continues in college. It was his phenomenal offensive performance in a wood-bat league, in fact, that finally convinced New York Yankees scouts to sign Princeton slugger Mike Ford. He had just won Ivy League Player of the Year, but they didn’t sign him until he hit over .400 with a wooden bat.

Yes, a college player can be productive with a wooden bat. Coaches and players grumbled when new rules mandated “BBCOR” bats a few years ago, but the game seems all right to me. These bats are supposed to mimic wooden bats by reducing the “trampoline effect” of traditional aluminum bats, and they’re certainly a step in the right direction, but they aren’t doing enough.

According to the New England Baseball Journal, a ball that leaves a metal bat will be traveling at around 80 mph when it’s two inches away, whereas a ball that leaves a wooden bat will be traveling at 60 mph at that distance. Furthermore, the drop in velocity is “more precipitous.” BBCOR bats have reduced sweet spots, but they’re still there, and the reaction time for a pitcher who finds himself in the path of such a hit is less time than it takes to blink an eye. Good thing Foote didn’t blink.

It’s not just pitchers who are in danger. If you’ve ever attended a Princeton home game, you know that the teams tend to sit outside the dugout with nothing between them and the foul balls that are often hit that way. Plus, there’s no fence or net between the batter’s box and the stands.

The only reason metal bats became prevalent in the first place is economics. While metal bats rarely break and are virtually impossible to shatter on contact with a pitch, broken wooden bats are a routine occurrence. Banning metal bats would undeniably put more of a financial strain on college teams, as they would have to compensate for each hitter breaking a bat or two over the course of a season. But it’s difficult to argue that increased chance of death by baseball is justified by the savings. Besides, what Ivy League school is going to be bankrupted by the cost of a few more bats?

The Ivy League can take the lead on this. It is often criticized (often by me) for spurning the NCAA and going in its own direction in favor of tradition — the Ancient Eight still does not allow its football teams to play in the NCAA postseason and prohibited freshmen from playing varsity basketball until 1977 — and a little bit of old-fashioned Ivy exceptionalism would be welcome here. Why can’t a league that bases so much of its policies on tradition see the benefit of going back to wooden bats?

There’s nothing like the sound of the ball coming off a wood bat, and when you throw in the fact that wood makes the game safer, it seems like a no-brainer.

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