Slugging for tradition

Teams in Brides­burg and Port Rich­mond are bring­ing back the wood bat — a slice of tra­di­tion they say makes base­ball more fun and ac­cess­ible.

Ah, sum­mer­time.

That sweet, re­lax­ing time of year when one can sit out­side, re­cline with a cold ice tea and watch the boys of sum­mer en­gaged in an ex­hil­ar­at­ing game of base­ball — Amer­ica’s pas­time.

The sights and sounds are so fa­mil­i­ar:

The taught, nearly stiff feel of a newly pur­chased glove.

The gnats float­ing by your eyes as you stare down the right field line, wait­ing with bent knees for the bat­ter to take a swing.

The loud “ting” of the bat as a ball is knocked once again in­to the air above your head.

Wait, one of those doesn’t fit.

Did that bat just make a “ting” sound?

Every­one knows that base­ball needs that sat­is­fy­ing crack of wood on the leath­er-bound ball of wound yarn.

It’s a sound that every Phil­lies fan awaits once Ry­an Howard or Chase Ut­ley — or re­cently even All-Star pitch­er Cliff Lee — steps to the plate.

But, for the most part, in Little League and high school and even col­lege, play­ers are al­lowed to use alu­min­um bats.

In the river wards, some are hop­ing to stay true to the ori­gins of the sport with a wood bat-only league.

Ac­cord­ing to Tim Racek, pres­id­ent and base­ball dir­ect­or of the Lep­re­chauns Sport As­so­ci­ation in Port Rich­mond, the idea is not only to re­turn to the more tra­di­tion­al game, but to re­move the ex­pens­ive equip­ment costs — and the of­ten un­fair be­ne­fits gained through the more costly met­al bats.

“To play base­ball, you’ve got to be able to hit with a wood bat,” said Racek on Wed­nes­day, Ju­ly 13, as he led a prac­tice with some of his play­ers at the field at Gaul and Ann streets.

With a wooden bat, says Racek, “kids aren’t afraid of the ball any­more be­cause it doesn’t come at them like a rock­et.”

This isn’t an as­sump­tion either.

A quick search on­line shows that stud­ies have found that balls hit by alu­min­um bats are hit harder than those by wood bats.

A study pub­lished in 2001 (the Crisco-Gre­en­wald Bat­ting Cage Study), found that on av­er­age, balls hit by alu­min­um bats traveled about 8 mph faster than those hit by wood bats.

Also, Racek said, alu­min­um bats have more of a “sweet spot” or ideal area of the bat to con­nect with the ball, mak­ing for bet­ter hits, more con­sist­ently.

By con­trast, wooden bats, he said, have a sweet spot about two inches smal­ler.

“This is a more pure game,” said Paul Bonewicz, coach of the Lep­re­chauns’ wood bat league for ages 14 and un­der.

Bonewicz said that as chil­dren, all of the coaches played with wooden bats. Alu­min­um, he said, took some of the skill out of hit­ting.

“Put it this way: you could buy an alu­min­um bat for $400 and the bat’s go­ing to do all the work for you,” he said.

This brought up an­oth­er con­cern: the fact that some play­ers have ad­vant­ages of sci­ence, de­pend­ing on how much they may be will­ing to spend on base­ball equip­ment.

Be­fore they set up the wood bat league last year, the coaches said they of­ten had games where teams would decim­ate their op­pon­ents, based heav­ily on which team had the bet­ter equip­ment.

In this league, they said, even with play­ers of vary­ing caliber, hav­ing wooden bats has kept games from be­com­ing un­re­lent­ing blo­wouts.

“We saw games go from 10 to sev­en to three to two,” said Racek. “Teams are nev­er out of the game any­more. They al­ways have a chance … Be­sides, if you can hit con­sist­ently with a wooden bat, you’ll be a much bet­ter play­er when you go to high school or col­lege.”

The play­ers them­selves said they no­ticed the dif­fer­ence between us­ing an alu­min­um bat and a one made of wood.

Chris Ham­mer­stein, a 15-year-old who plays for the Brides­burg Cou­gars on the wood bat team, said even though it makes it harder to hit, you learn to be a bet­ter play­er be­cause the league al­lows dif­fer­ent pitches that aren’t usu­ally per­mit­ted in a typ­ic­al alu­min­um bat league.

Pitch­ers are al­lowed to throw break­ing balls in the wood bat league; most alu­min­um bat leagues don’t al­low that, said Racek.

“I like that I can really throw a break­ing ball,” Ham­mer­stein said. “In a lot of leagues you can’t … It makes you a stronger hit­ter. You just have to learn more.”

Last year, the wood bat league star­ted with just four teams, but Racek said the league plans to grow to six teams this year — the sum­mer league starts in a few weeks. Sign ups are still un­der­way for the wood bat league to be held in the fall.

The Lep­re­chauns field three teams of 10 to 12 play­ers each, in age groups from ages 14 and un­der, 12 and un­der and ten and un­der.

Racek said he’s look­ing for­ward to start­ing the league again this year and that he en­joys the game more be­cause it evens the play­ing field for play­ers and re­moves a lot of the ex­pens­ive equip­ment from the game.

“You should see it, kids like nine or ten years old with $300 bats their par­ents bought them,” he said. “They are just like a tram­po­line. The ball just jumps.”

To get in­volved with one of the wood bat leagues, vis­it­re­chaunss­ports or call the Leps club­house at 215-423-6309.••

Re­port­er Hay­den Mit­man can be reached at 215-354-3124 or hmit­ 


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