Aluminum foiled

In this debate, there are no good guys or bad guys. Simply stubborn guys, selfish guys and guys who wouldn't know pragmatism if it hit them – ping! – across the face.

A federal judge this week upheld a New York City Council-sponsored ban on metal baseball bats in high school games – even after admitting that zero empirical evidence exists to show that such bats are dangerous. The coalition of manufacturers that has gotten rich off the high-end aluminum bat market fought the ban, set to start Saturday, with a full public relations assault, hiring President Bush's former spokesman, Ari Fleischer, as its lead flack.

And less than 200 miles up Interstate 95, in Providence, R.I., a man wondered why politicians have wasted hundreds of hours and businessmen hundreds of thousands of dollars on an issue he says he could settle definitively for only $50,000.

That's all it would take for Dr. J.J. Crisco, a professor of orthopedics at Brown University, to run a study comparing metal bats with supposedly safer wooden ones. He is familiar with the subject, having tested the same hypothesis with humans swinging the bats instead of the machines the NCAA uses in its certification process. Before Crisco finished the study, funded by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, aluminum-bat makers adopted new specifications on their products. The biggest differential allowed between length (in inches) and weight (in ounces) was changed to minus-3, rendering the results of some that Crisco examined – such as a 33-inch, 27-ounce minus-6 bat – inapplicable.

Crisco and fellow researchers concluded the metal bats they tested performed better than wood bats and that the risk of injuries was not significantly greater.

"If they want to reduce the injury, and that's the real reason for this (ban), there's no scientific data supporting that," Crisco said. "The number of injuries is just so small compared to the total players."

At least it was 10 years ago.

"We're dying to find out if anything has changed," Crisco said.

Well, what are they waiting for?

"Just money," Crisco said.

Money should be no object for the bat-manufacturing industry, particularly if its product is as safe as it would like the public to believe. It’s rather curious that the industry hasn't commissioned a study to prove such claims to absolve itself of the accusations lobbed by the outspoken Staten Island councilman behind the law, James Oddo.

Trent Duffy, a spokesman for the bat coalition, said Dr. Frederick Mueller, at the University of North Carolina's National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research, is gathering figures on the number of severe injuries caused by metal bats.

"If you believe the risk is much greater because of metal," Duffy said, "we surely would've seen that in the injuries statistics."

Though the number of injuries is low, the gravity of some has helped perpetuate Oddo's cause and the stigma against metal bats. In 2003, a line drive struck 18-year-old pitcher Brandon Patch in the chest and killed him. Last year, during a Police Athletic League game in New Jersey, 12-year-old Steven Domalewski took a line drive to the chest. His face turned blue. He started to twitch. The ball had hit him in between heart beats and triggered commotio cordis, a condition that caused his heart to stop before he slipped into a coma. His recovery remains slow.

Such stories, it seems, encourage Oddo, one of three Republicans on the 51-seat council, to babble. Perhaps the rush of victory, when Oddo spoke Tuesday less than an hour after Judge John G. Koeltl's decision, prompted him to call the coalition "the metal bat cartel" and say Fleischer "is still talking about yellow cake and uranium and Niger" and allege "this is a familiar story: corporate America flouting safety for the drive of profits."

Oddo could not point to a study that outlined the dangers of metal bats. He used anecdotal evidence, the same kind everyone hears about – and sees when sharp line drives accompany the aural assault of metal bats.

"You can write me off as a politician," Oddo said. "You can write me off as a guy who's interested for all nefarious reasons. Do that. It's not about me. The tabloids say this is a nanny state, politicians run amok. Talk to the guys who have no dog in this fight, and they'll tell you what their experiences are. It's patently laughable to say metal bats play no better than wood.

"I would love to see the government, an objective entity, do analysis. I would love that. Short of that, it doesn't mean I can't maintain what I believe."

So believe he does, evidence be damned, and believe too, did Judge Koeltl. The burden of proof, he maintained, should have been on city council members to depict how metal bats put children in danger, not how worried they are that metal bats might put children in danger.

"The protection of the health and safety of high school-age students is entitled to great weight," Koeltl said.

Fair enough.

"While the record does not include clear empirical evidence showing that more serious injuries would occur without the ordinance," he continued, "it is the city's legislative assessment that the risk is too great."

For a justice system steeped in logic, the decision was baffling. If the New York City Council believed "Little Einstein" rotted kids' brains, would Koeltl ban the DVDs? If Oddo feared sex would hurt the five boroughs' teens, would Koeltl mandate abstinence?

"The judge said there's no empirical evidence that there's any safety issue with the metal bats," said Duffy, the coalition spokesman. "We thought that was a strong statement: After he looked at the evidence, he still didn't find anything."

It was a strong statement, and it encapsulated the situation perfectly. This isn't about children. It is about big business and name-making politicians and hypocrisy. It is an argument as mutually beneficial, for all of the hype it creates, as it is ruinous. It is a Three Stooges act, with Oddo tweaking Fleischer, and Fleischer bopping the council, and the judge whoop-whoop-whooping.

The freshest part, of course, is that Catholic League teams started practice this week, and some have no idea what kind of bats to use or where they'll get the money to purchase them. Top-end aluminum bats, which sell for around $250, usually last a year or two. Players may shatter three wood bats, at $60 a pop, in a game. Oddo said he will enlist help from the Yankees and Mets in providing wood bats. That could take weeks.

So the madness continues. Duffy said the coalition is considering taking the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals. Oddo continues to bask in his victory, hoping other states considering the ban, such as New Jersey and Pennsylvania, follow New York City's cue.

And the scientist, the one who could render all of this moot by telling us to ban aluminum bats because they are unsafe or allow them because the risk with wood bats is just as great, is left to wonder why so many people focused on the welfare of children obsess about a hollowed-out piece of aluminum.

"If you're concerned about injury, what about cheerleading?" Crisco said. "It has 10 times more catastrophic injuries than baseball."