A Deadspin link to an AP story about aluminum bats and a jury award set us down quite a path this morning. First, the key elements of the story:

A jury on Wednesday found that the maker of Louisville Slugger baseball bats failed to adequately warn about the dangers the product can pose, awarding a family $850,000 for the 2003 death of their son in a baseball game. The family of Brandon Patch argued that aluminum baseball bats are dangerous because they cause the baseball to travel at a greater speed. They contended that their 18-year-old son did not have enough time to react to the ball being struck before it hit him in the head while he was pitching in an American Legion baseball game in Helena in 2003. The Lewis and Clark County District Court jury awarded a total of $850,000 in damages against Louisville, Ky.,-based Hillerich & Bradsby for failure to place warnings on the product. ... Attorneys for Hillerich & Bradsby declined to comment. They had argued that accidents are bound to happen in baseball games and there's nothing inherently unsafe about aluminum baseball bats. A spokesman for the legendary bat-maker said Wednesday the company did nothing wrong and the verdict "appears to be an indictment of the entire sport of baseball."

Deadspin wonders if this is the "beginning of the end" for aluminum bats because of the precedent set, but author Barry Petchesky ultimatley concludes that the monetary award wasn't large enough to influence any real change.

For us, it brought to mind a rather lengthy project we worked on in 2001 after then-Gophers pitcher Ben Birk (pictured) was hit in the face with a line drive. We talked to all sorts of folks and compiled quite a bit of data (and used math!) for a package on the impact of balls hit by aluminum bats. We have re-loaded, with help from a colleague, that material (a rather long story, and the accompanying sidebar and charts) into one on-line story. If this subject fascinates you and you want to read 3,000 words (roughly) on it, please click the link. If not, here is a little snippet we found particularly salient to the recent jury award. Remember, this is from May of 2001:

Jack 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," head coach John 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. ...

MacKay 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.

MacKay was proven right on the first point; time will tell if he's proven right on the notion of wood bat performance levels.

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