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Performance, safety key issues

The national high school association has decided to try to make aluminum bats less powerful.

Julius Riofir was only 17 when his life ended.

A baseball player from Glendale, Calif., Riofir was struck in the head with a ball hit off the barrel of an aluminum bat. It hit his right temple and fractured his skull.

It was a rare case, but it was enough for the National Federation of State High School Association's baseball rules committee to take notice. Last month, the committee proposed a change in the specifications for non-wood bats so that by changing the size, weight and speed at which the ball comes off the bat, the metal bats would replicate the performance of wood bats.

While the NFHS staff doesn't have any specific data that indicates an upward trend in batted-ball related injuries, it considers the proposed change a precautionary measure. The proposal is to require non-wood bats to have 2|-inch maximum barrel diameters (the current rules limit it to 2} inches).

Second, the bat length and weight differential would be reduced from five ounces to three ounces. For example, a 35-inch long bat that now can't weigh less than 30 ounces would have to weigh at least 32 ounces.

Finally, the committee wants to address the exit speed of the ball as it comes off the bat.

The idea has drawn mixed reviews from top baseball officials. Former coach Rick Misenti, now the chairman of the Florida High School Activities Association state baseball commission, said too many players these days are swinging for the fences.

"What you see now is a lot of swingers and not a lot of hitters," Misenti said. "There is a difference, and people don't understand it. I'm a purist. I would love to see us go back to wood."

That will never happen, said East Lake coach Lee Byers, who started coaching in Pinellas County in 1973, before metal bats were implemented in high school. When Byers began coaching, wood bats went for about $5 apiece, and the final year his team used them, it went through 18 dozen. Now, with a decent wood bat costing more than $30, the price of playing would skyrocket.

"I don't see going back to wood bats in high school as an option," Byers said.

But Byers, who said this wasn't a problem back in the '70s, thinks it's a viable issue now. He called the exit speed of the ball the main problem. And he would know because he saw the danger first hand.

During the 1998 season, East Lake sophomore Marc LaMacchia hit a ball back at Clearwater pitcher Brendan Fuller (now at South Florida). Fuller put his hand up to shield himself, broke his wrist and subsequently missed weeks of playing time.

"That could have ended his career," Byers said. "My personal feeling is that we need to address how the ball comes off the barrel."

In addition to safety concerns, the NFHS also listed two other reasons for asking for a change: to maintain an appropriate balance between offense and defense and to preserve the traditions of the sport.

Dick Termeer still holds those traditional values. Termeer retired from the Ohio Athletic Association after dealing with baseball for 19 years and also was the chairman of the NFHS baseball committee for four years. He says the game is changing for the worse, and this new rule should help.

"There are too many runs scored," Termeer said. "I don't think the game was meant to be played that way."

The increase in offense is a direct result of lighter bats, better technology and a greater impact of a pitched ball. The NCAA realized that and mandated similar rules at the begining of last season.

While most agree the change in bat standards didn't make much of a difference in the college ranks (see Florida State's Marshall McDougall and his six home runs in a 26-2 victory over Maryland in May), coaches and officials think it can help the high school game.

Jesuit coach John Crumbley, whose teams have drawn national acclaim for the better part of his 15 years at the school, likes the idea, but only if it's being done for the right reason.

"If (the NFHS) feels it's a safety issue, then it's something good," said Crumbley, who never has had a player seriously injured as a result of a batted ball. "There are so many other issues in this world we can deal with. I don't have a lot of energy to expend worrying about it. If everybody is playing with the same bat, so be it."

The recommendation is open to public discussion until Aug. 19, when the NFHS Board of Directors will gather all comments and meet via conference call to consider adopting the rule. If adopted, the rule would go into effect in January.

It will be phased in through the 2001 season, when some of the "old" bats would still be legal. By the 2002 season, every NFHS team across the nation would have to be in compliance with use of the "new" bats.