Diegnan has his reasons for introducing bill

The end of an era? The end of an era? Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan didn’t start thinking about introducing Assembly Bill 3388 last month when 12-year-old Steven Domalewski, of Wayne, was struck in the chest with a batted ball.

But the unfortunate incident, which resulted in Domalewski suffering a near-fatal disruption of his heart’s electrical system that caused his heart to stop, sending him into a coma, certainly got the ball rolling on the proposed legislation.

“My disdain for aluminum bats began while watching my daughters grow up playing softball, and cringing – along with other parents – at every metal-bat-propelled line drive hit back up the middle. The near-death of Steven Domalewski was the straw that broke the camel’s back in terms of my introducing the wood-bat legislation.

“The speed at which a ball comes off an aluminum bat can be so great that the reaction time for a pitcher to protect himself or herself is reduced to almost zero,” added Diegnan (D-Middlesex). “We cannot protect every player against on-field injury, but we can correct a balance of power that has swung disproportionately in favor of hitters using increasingly lethal bats.”

In introducing his bill, which states that between 1991 and 2001, 15 players were killed by balls from bats determined to be made of nonwood aluminum while only two incidents involved bats made of wood, Diegnan has done some homework, citing studies that back up his claims that aluminum bats pose a greater risk than wood ones do.

In a press release introducing the measure, Diegnan cited a 2002 study conducted by researchers at Brown University in Rhode Island that showed the differential in the speed of baseballs from metal bats compared to wood bats. The research, according to Diegnan, measured the speed of a ball hit off the fastest metal bat at 93.3 mph; the average speed achieved by the slowest wood model was 86.1 mph.

Overall, only 2 percent of balls hit with a wood bat exceeded 100 mph as opposed to 37 percent of the hits off metal bats.

“Physicists attribute the increase in ball speeds to the fact that a metal bat warps slightly when contact is made with a baseball (a phenomenon often called the ‘trampoline effect’),” Diegnan’s press release stated. “As the ball leaves the bat, the rebounding metal pushes the ball as it moves outward, increasing its velocity. When a baseball hits a rigid wood bat, it is the ball that warps slightly, forcing a loss in kinetic energy and lowering the velocity of the hit.”

Diegnan says that the slight difference in speed could mean the difference between a pitcher being hit flush or being able to react enough to deflect, or catch, a line drive.

According to the research Diegnan cited, fields laid out at Little League standards place pitchers 12 years old and younger 46 feet away from a batter; a line drive hit at 60 mph will reach the pitcher’s mound in only .52 seconds. For a high school pitcher facing a batter 60 feet, 6 inches away, a ball hit at 80 mph also will reach the mound in only .52 seconds. Since a pitcher generally finishes his delivery several feet closer to home plate, reaction time is further reduced.

“It can take less than a second from the time a pitcher releases a ball to the time he finds that ball careening straight back,” said Diegnan. “Anything that can lengthen a fielder’s reaction time – even fractionally – can go a long way to preventing a traumatic injury.

“The safety of our kids must be our paramount concern,” Diegnan added. “We cannot make baseball – or any sport – totally injury-free, but we can give players tools that can level the playing field for all participants.”

Diegnan’s measure, if passed, would be the broadest prohibition on the use of metal baseball bats in the country.

Several individual leagues across the nation have begun to remove metal bats from the dugout. Beginning this fall, several school districts in the Illinois High School Association will enter a pilot program to test wood bats at the interscholastic level. The move was forced after a 16-year-old pitcher was left in a coma for 10 days after a line drive off an aluminum bat smashed into the side of his head.

All North Dakota high school teams, according to Diegnan, will switch to wood in 2007. Massachusetts’ Catholic Conference high school league has used wood bats since 2003, and the Milford Little League in that state switched from metal bats this year after several coaches voiced concerns over the increasing speed of batted balls.

Diegnan noted that advances in the production of wood bats have created equipment that is less prone to breakage and cost a fraction of some high-end aluminum bats.

Diegnan said there would be other advantages as well that would come with the switch to wood bats, many of which counter the contention that the switch would adversely affect how New Jersey’s players would be viewed by college scouts, worried about the prospect of the players hitting with and pitching to metal bats for the first time.

“Moving to wood bats actually may make New Jersey ballplayers more sought after by major college programs,” Diegnan said. “A metal bat can compensate for offering at a bad pitch, whereas a wood bat does not. Wood bats, with smaller sweet spots and the inability to mask technical problems in a batter’s swing, force hitters to be more selective of the pitches at which to swing. Once metal bats are brought into the equation, the patience and selectivity taught by wood bats pay off.

“Massachusetts’ high schools all switched to wood bats in 2004, with some leagues having since reverted back to using aluminum bats,” the assemblyman added. “But the conferences that adhere to wood in the regular season dominate the state tournament, which allows the use of metal bats. As one coach in the Catholic Conference – which has used wood bats exclusively since 2003 – said, ‘When we switch over to aluminum in the post season, it’s like Christmas morning.’ His team was the 2005 state champion.

“Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente never knew anything but the ‘crack’ of the bat, and obviously were better players for it,” Diegnan said. “It is my honest belief that all of New Jersey’s aspiring Big Leaguers similarly would benefit.”

Diegnan also feels the switch would benefit pitchers, who could be seeing metal bats for the first time at the college level.

“To this I would offer the argument of the pro-aluminum bat lobby – balls hit square off the sweet spot of a wood bat can travel as fast as those off some aluminum bats. All pitchers know the risk of a hot shot back through the box, regardless of the type of bat the hitter is holding. Hopefully, these pitchers also would have coaches teaching them the mechanics to end their follow-through in a proper defensive position.”

As far as a timeline for the bill, Diegnan said he has been told it will be among the first measures to go under consideration when the state Assembly gets back in session next month.

“It will have to go through committee, and I’m moving along an outline that it could be sent to the Senate by Thanksgiving,” he said. “My goal is by Christmas, this will be a law, so that it will be in place for next year’s seasons.

“It’s time to do away with the hollow ‘ping’ and the increased risk of injury aluminum bats brought to New Jersey’s ball fields,” he concluded.