The Controversy Over Aluminum Bats

A governing body for high school baseball in Northern California says aluminum bats are still OK for now. The recent nearly fatal injury of a 16-year-old baseball player in Marin County prompted a call for a ban on aluminum bats. He was hit in the head by a line drive. NPR's Richard Gonzales looks at the controversy over whether aluminum bats add power and speed to the ball in a way that makes the game more dangerous.

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It's baseball season and that means it's time for the battle over bats, metal versus wood. In Northern California, high schools are sticking with metal for the time being, despite growing concerns about player safety.

As NPR's Richard Gonzales reports, calls to ban metal bats grew louder last month after a near-fatal injury.

RICHARD GONZALES: Gunnar Sandberg is a 16-year-old junior at Marin Catholic High School. He was pitching in a scrimmage game against a regional rival when he was hit in the head by a line drive. In an interview with APTV, his father, Bjorn Sandberg(ph), described his own horror.

Mr. BJORN SANDBERG: Absolute panic, shock and, you know, just making my way down to the field to see what I can do.

GONZALES: The line drive came off a metal bat too fast for Sandberg to react. Within 48 hours, a portion of his skull was removed to relieve pressure on his swelling brain, and he was placed in a medically induced coma. A month later, Sandberg is recovery and is scheduled to be released from the hospital next week.

But his injury has renewed the debate over whether metal baseball bats, not used by the pros, are safe enough for kids. Such bats are banned in the states of New York and North Dakota. Bjorn Sandberg wants the metal bats banned in Northern California, too.

Mr. SANDBERG: If this saves one other kid from having to go through what Gunnar's suffering through right now, I mean, that's all that matters.

GONZALES: Sandberg is supported by officials of the Marin County Athletic League, who banned non-wooden bats for the upcoming post-season. Those league officials in turn also proposed to extend that ban for a major part of Northern California.

But yesterday, the regional governing body known as the North Coast Section, voted 35 to 12 to keep aluminum bats for post-season play. Gil Lemon(ph) is a commissioner of the North Coast Section. He says his group reviewed studies on the danger of metal bats.

Mr. GIL LEMON (Commissioner, North Coast Section): When our delegates reviewed the information, their conclusion was overwhelmingly that by banning the non-wood bats, we were not going to create a safer environment.

GONZALES: Lemon says the delegates might also have been influenced by an incident in Major League Baseball this past weekend. Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Chris Jakubauskas suffered a concussion and head bruise after he was struck by a line drive. The ball that hit him came off a wood bat.

Mr. CHRIS KYRIACOU: Baseball can be a very dangerous game.

GONZALES: Chris Kyriacou is a varsity baseball coach at Bishop O'Dowd High School in Oakland. He's open to a change but just not now, before the playoffs.

Mr. KYRIACOU: It's like every year, traumatic injuries in football. It would be similar to saying, well, you know what, I think we're going to move, after the sixth game of the season, to flag football the rest of the year.

GONZALES: Officials in Marin County, where Gunnar Sandberg played, hope for a ban on metal bats next season. They issued a statement, saying that while they respect the decision made by other leagues, the debate is not over.

Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco.

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