You'll have to forgive those players and coaches in Virginia for arguing with umpires this spring. No, fighting over balls and strikes still won't stand, but nitpicking over bats is another matter entirely.
As chronicled by the Washington Post's Preston Williams, the state's adjustment to a stricter code for legal composite bats -- all as part of a nationwide push to cut down on the dangerous "sweet spots" of metal bats -- has failed to incorporate a nationwide "waiver list," which allows 43 bats that were originally on the new National Federation of State High School Association's (NFSHSA) banned list to actually be used in games.
According to the Post, the Virginia High School League unilaterally decided to reject those 43 additions on the basis of the VHSL's independent safety and waiver concerns. The result has been a maelstrom of controversy as standard protocol requires any player found using an illegal bat to be ejected from the game in which it is being used and suspended for an additional two games.
"The bat thing is the biggest, most confusing complication that I have seen in sports for the last 25 years," Mid Atlantic Collegiate Baseball Umpires commissioner John Porter, who organizes umpires for more than 250 high school games in the Virginia-D.C.-Maryland corridor each year, told the Post. "The umpires, the coaches and the parents now have to be metallurgists. They have to identify bats that sometimes are not well-marked and determine what they're made of. You can't tell whether it's a metal or an alloy bat or whether it's a composite bat."
Because umpires are charged with conducting pregame inspections on all bats used in a game, whether a bat is deemed legal or illegal can vary wildly from game to game. That raises the ire of players and coaches because of the harsh penalties imposed if a player is caught in the middle of the game using a bat which was passed before one game but possibly overlooked in a later inspection.
If it seems like going down a list is simple enough, it's not. Popular bat makers often produce multiple variations of their bat models. The Post brought up the example of the Rawlings 5150 bat, which has three main variations. Two of those variations are still legal in Virginia games, but one is not. The three bats look virtually identical.
Perhaps the only light at the end of the tunnel is that the confusion should only last for one season. The NFSHSA is planning to mandate all non-wood bats be of the BBCOR variety starting in 2012, just as they are in the NCAA. Those standards should ensure that bat manufacturers adjust their models, bringing all bats in wide circulation into code with the federation's regulations.
Unfortunately, that does little to clear up the ongoing confusion in Virginia for the rest of 2011.
"There's still confusion and controversy over the use of legal or illegal," Stuart coach Randy Lightle told the Post. "Because we really don't know."