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Critical injury to Marin County teen reignites debate over risk of aluminum baseball bats

  • Montgomery High School batter Cameron Hall uses an aluminum bat as he unloads on a hit, Friday March 26, 2010 against Elsie Allen High School pitcher Fermin Ramirez at Elsie Allen High School in Santa Rosa. Catching is Jordan Flores. (Kent Porter / The Press democrat) 2010

Gunnar Sandberg's story is horrific and heartbreaking, but not unique.

Sandberg, a 16-year-old Marin Catholic High School pitcher, was hit in the head March 11 by a line drive off a metal bat during a scrimmage against De La Salle High School of Concord. Within 48 hours, doctors had removed a portion of Sandberg's skull to relieve the pressure on his brain and he was placed in a medically-induced coma, where he remains today in critical but stable condition at Marin General Hospital.

The Kentfield teen's story has reignited a long-running debate over the safety of metal bats, which are used with few exceptions on the youth, high school and college levels. Major League Baseball and the professional minor leagues use wooden bats. Critics contend that balls struck with lighter metal bats are hit with much more velocity and give players less reaction time, particularly pitchers such as Sandberg, who are about 55feet away from home plate when balls are hit.

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"We need to make this game safer for the players," Gunnar Sandberg's father, Bjorn, told the Marin Independent Journal. "These new bats are too powerful. They're like weapons."

Debbie Patch of Montana, whose son, Brandon, was killed by a line drive off a metal bat in 2003, agrees. "I guess if you can catch a bullet, you're all right," she said.

But those connected with the aluminum bat industry and experts who study issues ranging from bat performance to sports injuries say there is no data to support the claim that aluminum bats pose a significantly greater safety risk.

Sonoma State University baseball coach John Goelz and many high school coaches in the region don't advocate a switch to wooden bats, believing batted-ball injuries are relatively uncommon and an inherent risk of playing the sport. At the youth level, officials with Little League, Pony League and Babe Ruth League don't support a ban on metal bats.

"Guys hit the ball hard, whether they are swinging wood or aluminum," Goelz said. "It's just part of the dangers of the game."

High school coaches in the North Coast also say the increased costs associated with wooden bats, which are cheaper but break at a much higher rate than metal bats, would pose a significant hurdle. In February, the Santa Rosa school board voted to eliminate spring sports at the city's cash-strapped middle and high schools in 2011, though district officials say the sports, including baseball, likely will be saved.

Elsie Allen High coach Manny DeLaO said he purchased about five wood bats to use in practice as teaching tools a few years ago. They were all broken within three weeks. A typical metal bat costs $300, roughly five times as much as wood bats.

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