OMAHA, Neb. – A great night for South Carolina. A disappointing one for UCLA. And a tortuous experience for proponents of banning aluminum bats.
The College World Series for years was a symbol of Gorilla Ball, the ping, ping, ping of balls squared up on elongated sweet spots, whistling past infielders’ ears, flying out of the yard and, frankly, turning the game into a joke.
Conversations would turn from runs, hits and errors to aluminum exit speeds that deserved tickets from state troopers and trampoline effects that belonged in a circus. Bat technology was commandeered by egghead engineers laid off by aerospace firms. The results were potentially lethal – to pitchers and to the game itself.
Rules have been tweaked and bats aren’t quite so missile-like. But who would have imagined that the last CWS game at historic Rosenblatt Stadium would be a clinic in small ball, a 2-1 South Carolina victory Tuesday that featured bunts, bloops and bleeders, and not a single bomb?
Certainly not Ben McDonald, who allowed 16 earned runs in three 1989 appearances for LSU. Or Jeff Ballard, who gave up 14 in two 1985 games for Stanford. Or Kris Benson, who surrendered 13 in two 1996 games for Clemson. All future major league pitchers.
From 1995 to 2001, five CWS teams batted over .370. LSU and Southern California each hit 17 home runs in ’98 and USC won the finale 21-14. As recently as last year, Texas hit 14 home runs.
Then this. UCLA scored two runs in 20 innings the last two nights. Bruin followers believed John Wooden was with them in spirit, and the players and coaches had scribbled "JW" on their caps, but maybe his spirit got bored by the 1-2-3 innings and floated out of Omaha in the direction of his hometown of Martinsville, Ind.
The hardest-hit balls died on the warning track. Or maybe the hardest hit was UCLA’s Dean Espy slamming his hand on the dugout wall and having to come out of the game with an injury. South Carolina’s winning rally consisted of a walk, a passed ball, a sacrifice bunt and an opposite-field single by Whit Merrifield that set off a wild celebration among South Carolina fans celebrating the school’s first national title in any sport except woman’s track and field.
The Gamecocks are champions because they pitched better, played better defense and made better baserunning decisions than UCLA. In other words, they out-gutted and out-littled this latest incarnation of the Gutty Little Bruins. It was entertaining baseball for the purist, a yawner for anyone expecting the offensive fireworks once brought to Omaha by familiar names J.D. Drew (five home runs), Bob Horner (20 RBIs), Mark Kotsay (.517 batting average) and Barry Bonds (.781 slugging percentage).
Aluminum bats began being regulated after the 1998 season, during which the average ERA of a college pitcher was 6.12. The ratio between a bat’s length and weight could no longer exceed three (in other words, a 33-inch bat couldn’t weigh less than 30 ounces) and bat barrels couldn’t be more than 2 5/8 inches in diameter. The anti-aluminum bat crowd has continued to grow, however, gaining converts every time a youth league or high school pitcher is struck in the head or chest by a screaming line drive.
Never mind that wood bats – especially ones made of maple – are dangerous because they splinter. Never mind that the number of trees needed to make enough wood bats for every amateur ballplayer in America would be astronomical and not very green. Never mind that because they break, wood bats would be extremely costly for schools and youth leagues already operating on shoestring budgets. Folks who want aluminum banned are crusaders of the highest order.
Coaches take a different view. In a recent survey of 24 whose college programs have won more than 1,000 games since 1985, 17 said they preferred aluminum and that they did not see a need to study the possibility of going to wood. “In an ideal world, wood would be cheap, cost efficient and it would be totally equitable,” Mississippi State coach John Cohen said. “That can never happen.”
The NCAA, rightly, continues to take steps to make aluminum perform as closely to wood as possible. The latest bat to be banned is called a composite. An NCAA study during last year’s CWS found that the ball flew off these bats – so named because they have an aluminum exterior and graphite interior – at an unacceptable speed. They won’t be allowed beginning next season.
And the ping will have even less zing thanks to a new acronym. Currently bats must meet BESR (ball exit speed ratio) specifications. But the NCAA has replaced BESR with BBCOR (ball-bat coefficient of restitution), a supposedly more rigorous testing procedure that takes into consideration various bat lengths and differing speeds of pitches.
The debate can resume next year at TD Ameritrade Park, the new stadium that will replace Rosenblatt. The first CWS held in Omaha was in 1950 and Texas won the title behind a 3-0 combined shutout by Jim Ehrler and Murray Wall. Aluminum bats came along in 1974 and the number of shutouts dropped from a total of nine in the previous two CWS to zero.
It was a sign. Gorilla Ball was muscling its way in. But on a warm Omaha night in front of an appreciative crowd, the final memories of Rosenblatt weren’t of metal, but of mettle. A taut contest unfolded and the little things mattered, even though the game ended with a ping.