Every year I celebrate my birthday at GreenJacket Stadium. We buy the party package -- usually meant for children, not 40-plus adults -- and take the family for an evening of summertime fun.
In spite of the incredible baseball heritage in Columbia County, there's something about a pro game that you just don't get here at a single one of our ballfields, from T-ball all the way up to high school.
At the pro park, you get to hear the actual crack of the bat. Professional players still swing real by-God wood bats. That's what a baseball game is supposed to be: human drama on a stage of grass and dirt, with wood and leather props.
Those elements are on our diamonds here, especially as our baseball teams dig into the playoffs.
Every element, that is, except the crack of the bat.
Somehow, the echoing ping of aluminum just isn't the same. And it's not just aluminum any more, either: Mark Mosley, owner of Hometown Sports, tells me some of the real high-dollar bats these days also are made out of composite materials like carbon fiber.
That sounds like sacrilege. Lightning didn't strike a beer-can plant in The Natural to produce Robert Redford's wonder bat, did it? Shoeless Joe Jackson's ghost didn't ping the ball into the cornfield in Field of Dreams, did he? Egad.
One of my coolest possessions is a letterman-style jacket with a giant Louisville Slugger logo on the back. Wearing it reminds me of the label on those great wooden bats that I remember from my Little League days, playing out at Appling Park -- now named for the late Lonnie Morris Sr., a Columbia County rec program pioneer.
At bat, we were told repeatedly to "keep the label up"; you weren't supposed to let the baseball hit it. The label was always branded into the weakest spot on the barrel of the bat, we were told, and if the ball hit the label the bat would break.
I don't know if that's true, but as a kid I treated it like gospel. I envisioned the bat erupting in an explosion of splinters at the mere touch of the ball to the label. In fact, I was so worried about breaking someone else's bat -- I never had a bat of my own -- that I probably suffered as a hitter.
But I sure got to know that Hillerich & Bradsby imprint.
One thing about metal bats: Even though the label covers the entire surface of the barrel, they rarely break. That, and the belief that they'll hit balls farther, has led to everyone younger than college-age making the switch to aluminum.
And because there are lawyers in the world, one claim against those bats is that hitting balls farther also meant hitting them harder, which makes the projectiles more dangerous to defending players.
The American Legion, which allows its youth baseball leagues to use metal or wood bats, this past week released results of a nine-month study that it says proves aluminum bats are no more dangerous than wooden bats.
The Legion reviewed numerous studies and said, "there is no substantial evidence in scientific research to support the claim that baseball bats made from wood are 'safer' than bats manufactured from metal or composite materials."
The Legion started its review in 2003 after a pitcher died from being struck in the head by a ball hit with an aluminum bat. One of the studies in the review showed that in the previous 20 years, just seven high-school-age people had died playing baseball, but 92 had died playing football.
Maybe so. But if I were a kid playing Little League again back on that sun-baked Appling field of young dreams, I think I'd die of shame if I were striking out with a metal bat instead of a wooden one.
So when August rolls around, I'll better appreciate the turned wood in the hands of those pro players. And what the heck; maybe I'll even yell from the stands for them to keep the label up.
(Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail comments to email@example.com.)
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