A Lingering Controversy

By Bob Klapisch
Updated: April 19, 2009

NEW JERSEY — So when does common sense finally kick in? That’s the question we should be asking as Little League and youth baseball starts up this month – with thousands of kids armed with aluminum bats.

This practice isn’t just dangerous; it’s our failing as adults.

There’s a bill sitting in the State Legislature calling for the abolition of metal bats in all youth-oriented games. As of now, it’s motion-less – no buzz, no hearings, no vote scheduled.

The powerful aluminum-bat cartel appears to have won the war in New Jersey, which is an outrage to the family of Steven Domalewski, the Wayne youth who was permanently disabled after taking a line drive in the chest three years ago.

It’s time our representatives take a lesson from James Oddo, the Minority Leader in the New York City Council. Oddo single-handedly banned aluminum in New York’s high schools in 2007. He took on the industry and, incredibly, beat them.

How? By calling out the greed that puts our kids at risk.

“This is all about money,” Oddo said by telephone from his Staten Island office. “When you peel the onion back, it’s all about the profits that are driven by the high-end metal bat market. Of course, they’ll never admit that.”

The bats run about $300 apiece, which is why manufacturing giants such as Easton and Louisville Slugger are fighting to keep their cash cow alive. Naturally, they say they’re sorry Domalewski was injured, but their sympathy will stop at the door of the courthouse where they’re being sued.

The cartel has assembled a team of experts who cite study after study proving that aluminum is as safe as wood, but former Mets reliever John Franco said, “I guarantee not one of those ‘experts’ has ever stood on a mound and had a line drive come back at their heads.”

Franco was one of Oddo’s star witnesses during the City Council hearing, which ended in a 40-6 vote in favor of the bill. Mayor Michael Bloomberg vetoed the bill but, in a blow to his political ego — and to the shock of the manufacturers — he was overridden.

It’ll take guts like that to enact a similar law in this state. The current legislation is being sponsored by Nicholas Scutari (D-Union), but if New York City’s experience is any indicator, Scutari will need help, not to mention a thick skin.

“The problem is that very few legislators are willing to put up with the personal attacks,” Oddo said. “[The aluminum bat manufacturers] have a very elaborate game plan, they’re willing to spend money. They spent more than $200,000 in New York to hire big-time lobbyists. In five-minute sound bites, they can be very persuasive.”

Incredibly, one of aluminum’s proponents is Mike Mussina, the Stanford-educated Yankee who just retired after 18 seasons in the big leagues. With 270 career victories and a borderline candidacy for the Hall of Fame, Mussina would qualify as real-time on the dangers of line drives.

Mussina’s support for metal would be counter-intuitive, unless, as Franco suggests, you take into account his close relationship with Easton.

“For years he [used] Easton gloves and their other stuff,” Franco said.

“Look, I think Easton took care of Mussina. I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ because Mike once got hit in the face by a line drive. But if he’d been hit by a ball off an aluminum bat, he would’ve been dead.”

That’s the argument that should be made over and over on behalf of old-fashioned wood bats. There’s a smaller “sweet” spot on the barrel. Wood is naturally heavier than aluminum, therefore bat speed is reduced.

Line drives are slower, if only fractionally. Wood creates a more realistic “feel” to hitting the ball squarely, which improves a younger player’s technique.

Of course, none of this can be proved in a laboratory, only in the field. But as Ernest Fronzuto, the attorney representing the Domalewski family in its suit against Louisville Slugger, said, “You won’t find a study that’s willing to test aluminum in the field, because [the manufacturers] don’t want to know the answer.”

So far, the cartel has beaten back challenges in every state except North Dakota. They’ll tell you aluminum saves money (and who isn’t vulnerable to that sales pitch these days?).

They’ll tell you aluminum gives every kid a chance to be a slugger, thereby increasing interest in the sport. And most disingenuous of all, they’ll say aluminum is about choice, and what’s more American than freedom of choosing your sporting weapon?

It’s slick and, as Oddo says, seductive. But anyone who’s old enough to remember Little League and high school as a wood-bat phenomenon knows intuitively that wood is safer and saner. It’s the only way to prevent another tragedy.

You don’t have to convince the Domalewski family of that caveat. Every day they struggle to recover their son, who is confined to a wheelchair, unable to speak.

Sadly, Joe Domalewski has become an expert on this issue; he testified in New York in 2007 and more recently took on the aluminum cartel in Chicago. The elder Domalewski can go on for hours about the greed that’s fueling this debate, but he’d give it all back for one coherent sentence from Steven.

When will it end? In our parts, it’s up to Rep. Scutari, who can be reached at 908-587-0404. Beyond our borders, it’ll likely take another and even greater tragedy to open our eyes.

“You know what’s sad? Some kid is going to get killed in the Little League World Series [in Williamsport, Pa.] with millions of people watching on TV,” said Franco. “That’s what it’ll take.”