Danger at the Plate
Four months ago Jack MacKay—call him the mad scientist of amateur baseball—quit as a design consultant to Hillerich & Bradsby, taking with him nine years of aluminum-bat research and the cold-eyed conclusion that the company was making unsafe bats. He stands with a growing number of coaches, players and NCAA administrators who, alarmed by soaring offensive statistics in the college game and several incidents in which pitchers have been injured by rocketing line drives, feel that too-lively metal bats are threatening the safety of amateur baseball at all levels (SCORECARD, Feb. 3, 1997). "I've heard of more pitchers being hit by line drives in the last three years than in my previous nine years on the [NCAA baseball rules] committee," says Bill Thurston, coach at Massachusetts. "We're going to get a kid killed."
Ironically, it was MacKay who helped unleash this threat by spawning a generation of high-performance bats with design innovations such as lightweight alloys and air-filled barrels. But as the bats grew more lively, so did MacKay's trepidation about them, and he says he began driving his employer batty with warnings about the deadly power of aluminum. MacKay says he produced data at his Mount Pleasant, Texas, research facility in 1992 that showed balls came off aluminum bats 6% faster than off wood bats—the difference now is as much as 8% to 12%—but that Hillerich & Bradsby didn't share his research with the NCAA. MacKay also claims that about four years ago he developed an aluminum bat that closely mirrored the performance of wood. The American Baseball Coaches Association voted unanimously in 1996 to request that the NCAA set specifications for just such a bat, but MacKay's model still hasn't been marketed by any bat company.
"I don't believe he ever presented anything like that," says Marty Archer, an H&B vice president. Adds George Manning, the company's head of technical services: "If he came to us with safety concerns, they certainly went over my head. I never heard any hesitation on his part." MacKay and H&B have each sued the other; the former to have his contract declared invalid, the latter for breach of contract.
Most college teams are not voluntarily going to stop using high-performance bats, for fear of being at a competitive disadvantage. Also, many coaches have endorsement contracts with Hillerich & Bradsby, Easton or Worth, the companies that dominate the high-performance bat market. These companies, which can sell high-performance bats for higher profit margins than clunkier aluminum and wood models, say any NCAA bat regulations would cost them millions. They also say that their bats are not as lively or lethal as feared, and that other factors such as lively balls and changes in the strike zone are contributing to the upsurge in offense.
In declaring their aluminum bats safe, bat companies point to a 1995 study performed by New York University physics professor Richard Brandt. But that study, commissioned by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, a trade group that represents bat makers, is tainted. Brandt has admitted to the NCAA that his test was unreliable for baseball purposes: It used stationary softball bats at which pitches were thrown at only 60 mph. A preliminary copy of his report shows that it was circulated among executives from several bat companies for editing before it was released to the NCAA.
On Jan. 21 the NCAA baseball rules committee is scheduled to discuss two new scientific bat studies, one commissioned by the NCAA and the other by Major League Baseball. But the committee still seems far from setting new standards for bats. However, MacKay, who has signed a deal with Rawlings to resume his bat designing, says the solution is obvious: "We're going to build and sell safe bats that perform like wood."
No Kid in the Hall
No position in baseball has produced fewer great players over the last half century than catcher. With the exception of Johnny Bench, the Baseball Writers Association of America hasn't elected to the Hall of Fame any receiver who was born after 1925 or who debuted in the big leagues after '48—and rightly so. But when at last presented this year with a Cooperstown-quality catcher, Gary Carter, too many writers failed to recognize his greatness with their pens and ballots. Talk about tools of ignorance.
As one of 473 voting members, I voted for Don Sutton, who was the only one elected on Monday; Jim Rice, who hit 382 home runs and had eight .300 seasons; and Carter, who established Cooperstown credentials over 19 seasons spent mostly with the Montreal Expos and the New York Mets. Neither Carter nor Rice came close to being elected.