A different kind of game

Wooden bats change America's pastime

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— It was the type of drive that would normally have cleared the center field fence. And when Tulsa Lookout cleanup hitter Chase Beeler turned on opposing pitcher Jake Fithers' fastball in Friday afternoon's game at Howelsen Hill, that's exactly where most of the fans and other players who were gathered in the dugouts thought the ball would end up.

The ball left the bat with a loud thud and soared more than 300 feet to deep center field before it was tracked down by a Kenosha Merchant outfielder for just another long-ball out.

Welcome to Triple Crown's wood bat division, Mr. Beeler.

"We have not played in a lot of wood bat tournaments," Lookout coach Steve Jarrett said. "I think that ball would have been gone if it would have been hit with a metal bat. But this is a different game."

This week the coaches, along with many of the players, have had to adjust their game during the second session of the World Cup World Series here in Steamboat Springs.

The players quickly learned that the air might be a little thinner here in the Rocky Mountains, but the balls are not flying over the fences.

"We've hit one home run in three games," Jarrett said. "That's about normal, but we had a couple yesterday that were right at the fence. You have to think that with the metal bats they would have been gone."

But thanks to the fact that the 15-year-old division at this weekend's Triple Crown World Series has outlawed the silky smooth metal bats in favor of a more tradition feel of maple and ash, the long ball has been limited.

"It's a lot different," Beeler said of striking the ball with the wood bats. "The sweet spot is a lot smaller than it is with the metal bats. With the wood bat you know when you hit it well."

Beeler said he has played with the wood bat in practice in the past, but this weekend's tournament in Steamboat Springs was the first time he has used the wood bats in a game.

"I think most of the guys like it," Beeler said. "With metal bats you can hit it off the handle and still get pretty decent distance that's not the case with wood. Using a wood bat makes me a better technical hitter."

Jarrett said wood bat tournaments have become a trend in recent years across the country. While metal bats may have changed the game in recent years, allowing hitters to add power and speed to their game, the wood bat has survived.

Now, concerns over the safety of playing with metal bats have made many tournament organizers turn back the clock to a time when everybody used wood. The problem with metal is that many pitchers, who stand just over 60 feet away from home plate, and infielders have been caught off guard by the speed at which the ball comes off the newer metal bats.

"It's a lot like retro dancing," Jarrett said. "It doesn't seem to matter if it's music or baseball; it's cool to try things the way they used to do it."

Beeler said he was happy to play in a wood bat tournament. He has spent the past couple of years listening to his older cousin tell him how baseball used to be played. Now he can tell him that he's been there.

The pitchers on the Lookouts are also happy to see the wood bats make a comeback. Ryan Stevenson said he has more confidence on the mound and that if he leaves a ball out over the plate it isn't necessarily going to turn into a round trip for the batter.

Another big plus to wood is that it is much cheaper than its metal counterpart. Wood bats are sold for $30-40 apiece (or a package of six for $170)

But before pitchers start to get too comfortable on the mound they should know that bat manufacturers are already busy developing the next generation of bats.

The sales pitch for the new composites (some of which are already on the market) is that they have the same "pop" as a metal bat but are made out of wood.

But for Beeler and his teammates it doesn't really seem to matter if the bats are made out of wood, metal or some new space-age material. As long as they get to swing them on a baseball field, and everyone is using the same thing, a hit is a hit.

To reach John F. Russell call 871-4209

or e-mail jrussell@steamboatpilot.com

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