Carleton College brought two sets of bats to every baseball game back in 1999, one for its own use and the other for its opponents. The Northfield, Minn., school, chilled by the way metal bats strafed baseballs past pitchers' heads like bullets, decided unilaterally to switch to wood, even if it meant supplying both teams for a game.
"Our primary motivation was the survival of pitchers. And everybody agreed to go along with it, as long as we were paying for it," said Leon Lunder, Carleton's athletic director at the time. "It just seemed like a common-sense change. We weren't inventing the wheel, we were just trying to put it back on the truck."
Carleton's experiment ended after one year, when the NCAA began addressing aluminum-bat technology. But maybe those Knights were just ahead of their time.
The NCAA's new standards for aluminum bats, which try to replicate as closely as possible the results of wood bats, strike some coaches, administrators and players as a half-step toward a simple, obvious solution: Why not just scrap the artificial bats altogether?
"The way they've made the bats now, and with all the changes we've had, it just makes more sense to have wood bats," the University of Minnesota's Nick O'Shea said. "Some of the wood bats I've hit, the [contact] feels more solid than with the BBCOR bats. That's a weird sensation."
The Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, the Division III league that Carleton belongs to, has joined with several other lower-division conferences in asking the NCAA to study the feasibility of abandoning aluminum.
"We're not trying to force Division I to do anything, but we feel like wood bats are more true to the game," MIAC Commissioner Dan McKane said. The conferences hope to hear next month whether the NCAA will conduct the inquiry.
But the problem with wood -- indeed, the reason college baseball switched to aluminum 40 years ago -- is cost. Wood bats break, while aluminum bats, relatively speaking, don't.
The gap isn't as big as it once was, however. Bats that meet the new BBCOR standard generally cost between $350 and $400 apiece, while wood bats are priced from $50 to $100. "We've done some preliminary investigation, and we believe it might be close to a wash," McKane said.
Jeff Hurd, chairman of the NCAA's baseball rules committee, said he expects members will want at least a few years of data before considering further changes. But because changes tend to trickle down the amateur-baseball chain, coaches at lower levels are bracing for a new era.
The National Federation of State High School Associations has adopted the NCAA's rules, effective next season, so coaches such as Eden Prairie's Mike Halloran are watching as colleges adjust.
His verdict? "It'll change the high school game a ton," Halloran said. "It will probably cut our power production even more than colleges. The best players will stand out even more, but it's really going to equalize things. I'm a little torn."
But after watching his team in a wood-bat tournament in Shakopee last week, he's willing to endorse a switch to wood -- if the costs can be solved. He bought six maple bats, at $80 apiece, and one broke the first day.
"The kids really enjoyed it. I think they prefer wood. But if every kid goes through five or six a season, that adds up," Halloran said. High schools help players defray the cost of aluminum bats, but "if we went to wood, with the budgets we deal with, I'm afraid the expense would fall on the players."