Note: This content was originally published in the Star Tribune on May 6, 2001
Ben Birk sounds as if he won the lottery.
"I honestly feel lucky," said Birk, a senior pitcher for the Gophers baseball team. "When I think about it, I feel lucky."
This was Birk's prize:
Lying on the ground in a pool of his own blood with multiple facial fractures after being hit by a line drive off an aluminum bat.
"It was only a fractured sinus and a broken nose. My vision is back to 20/20," he said. "I feel fortunate."
Of course, luck can come from a different perspective after you've been hit in the face by a baseball traveling 100 miles per hour.
While pitchers have always been at risk, there has been a growing concern in recent years that metal bats have introduced a greater element of danger. Balls hit off high-performance aluminum bats have been clocked at more than 120 mph, a speed opponents of the bats say is dangerous and consistently faster than speeds produced by wood bats.
Because aluminum bats have a larger "sweet spot" than wood bats, they allow hitters to make solid contact more frequently. Because of their design, aluminum bats produce a trampoline effect almost like tennis rackets at high-speed impact, causing the ball to lose less energy.
On March 3 at the Metrodome, the lefthanded Birk threw a slider that broke down and away from Kevin Howard, a lefthanded hitter for Miami.
Howard reached out with his aluminum Louisville Slugger bat and flicked the ball back at Birk.
"It wasn't a terrible pitch," Birk said.
It was just a terrible result. The ball caught Birk squarely on his nose. He remained conscious and was taken to a hospital, where doctors began the process of putting his face back together.
For the first four weeks of his recovery, Birk couldn't do anything that put pressure on his face. He gradually began riding a stationary bike and followed with simple games of catch, which he did while wearing a hockey mask and cage to protect his face. He worked his way back to throwing off a mound and in the past week was throwing to live batters.
Today, more than two months after the injury occurred, Birk will make his return to the mound for the Gophers against St. Thomas, all too aware of the danger that lurks.
Ryan Mills, the Twins' No. 1 draft pick in 1998, had his jaw broken in his first college start at Arizona State. Two pitchers were stuck in the face by line drives in last year's NCAA regional hosted by the Gophers.
Seven Japanese high school pitchers have died from being struck by batted balls since aluminum bats were introduced in 1974. Pitchers there must wear protective helmets now in practice. There is no specific data on U.S. pitchers who have been killed by batted balls.
The NCAA adopted new rules for aluminum bat performance in college baseball before the 1999 season. The guidelines decreased the maximum barrel size from 2 3/4 inches to 2 5/8 inches and changed the length to weight differential to minus-3 (for example, a 34-inch bat must weigh at least 31 ounces). The National Federation of High Schools adopted the same rules this season.
But many close to the issue say the changes had minimal impact. They say companies that manufacture bats are aware of the inherent dangers of their products and that amateur baseball's governing bodies have allowed themselves to be manipulated by the manufacturers.
They also say that until amateur baseball returns to using wood bats or metal bats that perform like wood, the game - and players - will suffer the consequences.
"It's not like stock-car racing or even football, where people understand the inherent risk. People think baseball is a good, safe sport, but it's not," said Jack MacKay, who pioneered much of the high-performance aluminum bat technology for Louisville Slugger in the 1990s. "I don't think the average mom and dad realize that when they take their kid to a Little League game, he could wind up dead."
Those who make the bats say they are producing a safe product that has enhanced amateur baseball.
"We obviously differ from the contention that the bats are dangerous," said Mike Zlaket, vice president for baseball and softball at Easton Sports, Inc. "Our position is that the data is self-explanatory. There's nothing that would make us feel contrary. It's good for the game."The introduction
The NCAA approved the use of metal bats in college baseball for the 1974 season. The main advantage they held over their wood counterparts was that they didn't break and could save teams money in an era of budget crunches.
Hitters quickly learned that there were more than monetary advantages to metal bats. In 1973, Division I hitters had a cumulative .266 batting average. In 1974, the average was .274. Three years later, it was .286. Home run and scoring averages began to climb steadily.
Proponents of metal bats are quick to point out that offensive production has also increased over the last 25 years in professional baseball, which continues to use wood bats. Thanks to weight training, better nutrition and constant swing analysis, modern players have the tools to hit baseballs harder regardless of the type of bat they're using.
It's also common to see professional pitchers get hit with line drives off wood bats. Twins lefthander Mark Redman, who also pitched at the University of Oklahoma, has been hit twice as a pro, including a drive in 1999 that knocked him unconscious.
"It's going to happen," Redman said. "You just have to get your head out of the way."
But some say getting out of the way isn't possible in some cases of balls hit off high-performance aluminum bats because the time it takes for the ball to get to the pitcher is faster than a human being's reaction time. Birk said he didn't have a chance to get out of the way of the ball that hit him.
"You're going to get hit with a wood bat, but there's a greater chance of getting hit with aluminum because there are more people who can generate high level speeds," Gophers baseball coach John Anderson said. "And when you get hit with an aluminum bat, like Ben Birk did, it's a serious injury."The bat race
MacKay was hired as a consultant by Louisville Slugger manufacturer Hillerich & Bradsby in 1989 in the company's attempt to catch up with California-based Easton Sports, Inc., which controlled much of the early aluminum bat market. He developed the full barrel design that he says led to the offensive explosion and corresponding concerns in college baseball. According to MacKay, he left the company in 1997 after seeing the speeds produced by the bats he helped design. Hillerich & Bradsby executives say MacKay quit over a contract dispute when he tried to join a competitor.
"It was kind of like a race," MacKay said. "You jump in a car and spend 30 laps trying to catch the competition and you get caught up in it. That's what I did. And then I looked up."
Competition increased and technology advanced, turning aluminum bat sales into a $300 million industry. Bat companies turned to college teams to showcase their products. About 140 schools have contracts to exclusively use a certain company's bats. In exchange, they get the bats for free. The Gophers, for instance, have a contract with Easton. The University of Miami has a contract with Louisville Slugger. Top aluminum bats cost about $300, roughly five times more than a top wood bat.
"That's where the cost-saving comes in now," Anderson said. "If everyone had to buy their own bats, it would be different."
Coaches at several high-profile baseball schools also receive money as part of the deal. Bill Thurston, head coach at Amherst, said he knows of eight coaches who receive at least $50,000 a year from bat contracts. Ty Halpin, a liaison to the NCAA's baseball research panel, said the association is not concerned that some of the same coaches are on committees that determine bat regulations.
Anderson, who said while being interviewed for this story that he is happy with the Gophers' contract and dealings with Easton, said coaches who benefit most would be less likely to criticize the bats' performance.
"The manufacturers are in bed with the NCAA and no one wants to say it because they're both making a lot of money," MacKay said.The impact
MacKay quit in the middle of a stretch of Division I college baseball from 1995 to 1998 that saw the overall batting average in the sport increase from .289 to .306. Those numbers led the NCAA to institute the new barrel and weight differential guidelines for 1999.
A third recommended guideline that would have limited exit speeds off bats to 93 mph based on a test standard was delayed after Easton filed a $267 million lawsuit against the NCAA for restraint of trade. The NCAA later adopted a 97 mph standard, and Easton dropped its lawsuit.
The results of the changes are debatable. Overall batting average dipped to .297 in 2000, and home runs also were down. But the impact of the bat restrictions is difficult to measure because the NCAA also introduced a new Rawlings baseball in 2000 that some say is less lively than the Wilson ball it previously used.
Thurston, Amherst's head coach for the past 36 years, resigned from his post as the NCAA's rules editor last July because he thought the changes made to the bats were superficial.
"Did the changes do what we set out to do? No," Thurston said. "The bottom line is that aluminum bats still hit the ball anywhere from 10 to 15 miles per hour faster than wood."The discrepancy
The 97 mph standard for exit velocity off a bat is based on a pitch thrown 70 mph and hit by a wood bat swung at 85 mph, said James Sherwood, a professor of mechanical engineering at UMass-Lowell who tests bats to determine if they comply with NCAA rules. But both pitch and swing speeds often exceed the testing standards under game conditions, introducing the trampoline effect of the bats.
The ball that hit Birk was timed at 99 and 100 mph by separate speed guns.
"We haven't done any correlations between what happens in the lab and what happens on the field," Sherwood said. "It's something we're interested in doing at some point in the future because it's always good to relate testing in the lab to what you're experiencing on the field."
When asked about the discrepancy between lab testing and field results, Easton's Zlaket said, "It's a scientific area. The people who can better answer that question are probably with the NCAA. They're the ones who determine the rules and what they want the game to look like."
Said the NCAA's Halpin: "I think we've done everything we can safety-wise that the game is played with an acceptable amount of risk. From the NCAA standpoint, we go with the scientists on our research panel who are very experienced."
To those concerned about aluminum bat performance, the testing level is at best ineffective and at worst a loophole that allows manufacturers to keep producing dangerous products.
"I've read about the testing levels, and it's not realistic in terms of what's really happening on the field," the Gophers' Anderson said. "If you want to test it, come out here and grab a wood bat and an aluminum bat and watch somebody hit. If you tell me there's not a difference, you're not being truthful."
Those concerned about the current performance levels of aluminum bats would like to see the bats toned down to the point where they perform like wood bats under game conditions.
At the NCAA baseball committee's most recent meeting in July 2000, they recommended no changes in bats or balls for 2001. Halpin said NCAA statistics show baseball is among the safest college sports. He added that the committee will continue to monitor bat performance and discuss the issue again at this year's summer meeting.
Birk declined to answer questions about whether the ball that hit him came off a bat he deems unsafe. Anderson, who had a first-hand look at the two incidents in last year's regional and Birk's injury two months ago, is convinced more changes are necessary.
"When you see it in person, there's a much greater impact than when you just hear about it. When you hear that `Splat,' your stomach sinks," Anderson said. "If we can save one kid from being hit in the face like Ben Birk was, it's worth it."
SIDEBAR: SPARKING LAWSUITS
The performance level of aluminum bats has been a topic of debate for several years. In the past few, though, it has become a matter for the courts.
Easton Sports Inc. filed a $267 million restraint of trade suit against the NCAA in August 1998 after the association sought to implement a set of three restrictions on aluminum bats. The NCAA filed a countersuit against Easton. Though both sides dropped their suits after one of the restrictions was changed, the bat industry felt an impact.
"It was a very contentious time," Easton vice president Mike Zlaket said. "It was difficult to operate our business."
Since then, several pitchers who have been struck by balls off aluminum bats have sued manufacturers, claiming the bats are unsafe. Among the most notable is Andrew Sanchez, who filed suits in March, 2000 that are still pending against the NCAA and Louisville Slugger manufacturer Hillerich & Bradsby. Sanchez's skull was fractured while pitching for Cal State Northridge in April, 1999.
But the liability in such incidents is difficult to discern.
"Let's not just blame the bat companies," Gophers baseball coach John Anderson said. "The manufacturers just did what was allowed by those who protect the integrity of the game. The governing bodies of all levels of baseball, where have they been through all of this?"
Jack MacKay pioneered much of the current aluminum bat technology as a Louisville Slugger consultant before quitting, he said, because he thought the bats were dangerous. He filed a petition with the Consumer Product Safety Commission last year seeking "a recall of all non-wood baseball bats that exceed the performance of wood baseball bats."
In the petition, MacKay accuses bat manufacturers of "falsifying test results, knowingly violating governing body rules and conspiring to fix performance testing in a manner to continue inflated profits," among other things.
MacKay said he's been asked to testify in 17 cases in which pitchers have been struck by balls hit off aluminum bats. None have severely affected the industry - yet.
"Some jury is going to see through all this and we'll get back to real wood bat performance levels," MacKay said.
THE PHYSICS OF A LINE DRIVE
Technological improvements in aluminum bats have many people worried about the speed at which amateur baseball is played.
The NCAA adopted a standard for aluminum bat performance in 1999 that said the exit velocity of a batted ball should not exceed 97 mph under test conditions. Those conditions were set based on the performance of a wood bat swung at 85 mph and a pitch thrown at 70 mph. At faster pitch and swing speeds, too many wood bats broke for a comprehensive study. Research has shown that a baseball pitcher needs between approximately .35 and .4 seconds to react to a ball hit back at him as he stands 54 feet from impact.
Here are examples of how far baseballs travel at different velocities off of bats in .36 seconds, which would represent a relatively fast reaction time for a pitcher:
1. 93 mph (the standard of maximum exit velocity an NCAA baseball committee recommended in 1998): 49.1 feet.
2. 97 mph (the standard of maximum exit velocity set by the NCAA in 1999 based on a machine swinging a wood bat 85 mph at a pitch traveling 70 mph. An aluminum bat that produces speeds in excess of 97 mph under the same machine conditions is illegal in college baseball): 51.2 feet.
3. 100 mph (the recorded speed of a ball hit with an aluminum bat that struck Gophers pitcher Ben Birk in a March game, causing multiple facial fractures): 52.8 feet.
4. 111 mph (the recorded speed of a ball hit with an aluminum bat that narrowly missed Gophers pitcher Mike Kobow in a recent game): 58.6 feet.
5. 120 mph (a top velocity a top hitter could expect off an aluminum bat in game conditions): 63.4 feet.
THE TRAMPOLINE EFFECT
Because of what is called the "trampoline effect" a springy rebound off an aluminum bat similar to a tennis racquet an aluminum bat creates a greater increase in exit velocity than a wood bat. In game situations, where pitch speeds and swing speeds are even greater, aluminum bats can generate exit velocities of 120 mph.
DO THE MATH
The kinetic energy of an object is determined by multiplying one-half of its mass by its velocity squared. Therefore, an increase in the velocity with which a baseball leaves a bat increases its energy at an even greater rate.
For instance, a ball traveling 111 mph the recorded speed of a ball hit with an aluminum bat that narrowly missed Gophers pitcher Mike Kobow in a recent game has 31 percent more kinetic energy than a ball traveling 97 mph. A ball hit at 111 mph reaches a pitcher in approximately 0.33 seconds.