Archive for March, 2011

Speeding Up Baseball: It’s a Move in the Right Direction

By Rick Wolff

One of the major criticisms about our national pastime is that it’s just too slow. Go out to any Little League game and see how quickly the kids in the outfield become despondent as they wait endlessly for some sort of action to take place. No wonder so many kids end up stop playing baseball – it’s a lesson in boredom.

Thank goodness that the NCAA has started to make some major changes. For starters, at the Div I level this year, all pitchers have to throw their next offering within 20 seconds. That forces everybody to be on their toes, all the time.

It also compels pitchers to throw strikes. In addition, teams have to run off the field between innings and then be ready to go in 90 seconds or less. Again, a very smart move. Let’s keep the kids moving!

As I mentioned on the show this AM, back in the 1920s and 30s, major league games lasted about 2 hours each. True, there weren’t any long TV breaks, and there were fewer pitchers used. But according to the NCAA, most games in recent years — thanks to the use of aluminum bats and lengthy pauses between pitches – college games were running 3 hours plus.

But so far this season, college games are now being whittled down to 2 hours, which is just great. And of course, because only BBCOR bats are allowed in college, the scoring is way down. (For more information on BBCOR bats, be sure to check out Steve Kallas’s blog post this week).

All in all, baseball is meant to be played with an upbeat tempo. The NCAA should be congratulated for putting these changes in place – let’s hope the HS, travel, and youth leagues follow suit very quickly.

Why Statutes Criminalizing Assaults on Sports Officials Are a Bad Idea

By Doug Abrams

This is my first weekly column on Rick Wolff’s blog. Each column will discuss a youth sports topic or recent news item because children benefit when parents and coaches, the adults most influential in their athletic lives, exchange ideas with one another verbally or in writing. I look forward to comments and dialog because I respect the callers’ thoughtfulness and commitment each time I appear as a guest on Rick’s Sunday morning WFAN radio show.

 With the behavior of so many parents and coaches spiraling downward in recent years, some states have reacted with laws criminalizing assaults on sports officials. Other states may enact similar laws in the next few years. Most of these new laws would punish violence in amateur and professional athletic events alike, but I think it is fair to say that their primary target is violence in youth leagues and interscholastic sports.

The target makes sense because the media regularly reports assaults committed on youth-league and interscholastic officials by parents and coaches. This violence hurts not only the targeted officials, but also the game itself and the children who witness the violence or learn about it in the community.  Youth leaguers are not born with attitudes about sportsmanship and respect but, like other children, learn what they watch over time. Adults carefully watch the children as they play organized sports, but the children also watch the adults.

 I believe, however, that these new criminal assault laws are both unnecessary and potentially counterproductive.

  1. New laws criminalizing assaults on sports officials are unnecessary because generally applicable criminal statutes already punish violence against “another person,” including a sports official.  New York, for example, already criminalizes second-degree assault (a class D felony carrying a prison term of three to seven years), third-degree menacing (a class B misdemeanor carrying a maximum prison term of three months), and similar offenses. Violence against sports officials too often goes unpunished, not because we lack criminal statutes, but because police, prosecutors and courts tend not to indict, convict or impose meaningful punishment under statutes already on the books.

 The range of punishment possible under these and other New York statutes, for example, is sufficient because I cannot conceive of an assault on a sports official that would warrant a higher sentence. Indeed most assaults committed by parents or coaches on youth sports officials would warrant a low-end sentence, or even simply a suspended sentence or court-imposed probation. I believe that even low-end punishment would send a message when parents and coaches read about people like them who are actually convicted for crimes committed at children’s games. 

  1. New statutes aimed at violence against sports officials are potentially counterproductive because enacting more rarely-applied statutes may lead us to sit back comfortably, confident that we have done something meaningful to confront the violence problem. A criminal statute, however, remedies no problem and protects no one unless police, prosecutors and judges actually enforce the statute. People concerned about assaults on sports officials should direct their attention where it belongs — to police, prosecutors and courts who continue to let wrongdoing parents and coaches get away with their violence, sometimes without even a slap on the wrists under existing law,

Criminal statutes already on the books protect sports officials, provided only that authorities would enforce the statutes more often.

What Baseball Bat Should You Use in 2011 in Little League, High School or College?

By Steve Kallas 

Much has changed in the landscape of baseball bats for the 2011 season. If you are buying one of these bats, be very careful, especially if the bat is a BESR (Ball Exit Speed Ratio) bat. Rules have changed for this year and will change for the 2012 year as well. After telling us (incorrectly) for years that the BESR bats are virtually “the same” as wood (an absurd conclusion), the times, they are a changin’. Most important, BEWARE THE BAT SALES. Right now, every day in the Northeast, one can see commercials for baseball bats at half-price, etc. We will discuss those below.

WHAT ARE THE MAIN DEFINITIONS/ABBREVIATIONS?

Some definitions: BESR (Ball Exit Speed Ratio): The BESR bat has long been a standard for bats, especially in Little League. For years, people like Rick Wolff of WFAN’s “The Sports Edge” radio show (Sunday mornings at 8 on WFAN) and this writer have pointed out at length the obvious differences between wooden bats (where all levels of baseball should return to) and the clear dangers of metal bats (just watch or pitch batting practice to a group of kids using both metal and wood bats – the difference is obvious). The BESR, a wholly inadequate standard (now recognized as such, however subtly, by virtually everyone), simply measures the exit speed of a ball off a bat.

BBCOR (Bat-Ball Coefficient of Restitution): This is the new standard in NCAA college baseball for 2011 and for high schools in 2012. Without being too technical, the BBCOR standard measures the “trampoline” effect of a ball off a bat. By virtually all accounts, the BBCOR bats are much “deader” than the BESR bats and are much closer to wood in terms of “pop” off the bat.

ABI (Accelerated Break-In): This is in response to the increased use, in recent years, of composite bats (composite bats are even better than aluminum bats, from a “pop” standpoint, as they have a woven graphite wall and actually get stronger as they are “broken in” (whether legally, with use, or illegally, with “bat-rolling” techniques)). A bat must stay within the ABI standard over time to be legal.

BPF (Bat Performance Factor): Still used by Little League’s “Majors” Division (13 and under), a non-wood bat must have a BPF of 1.15 or less (and will be labeled as such). It is a measurement that is supposed to show that a non-wood bat has similar qualities of “pop” (for lack of a better term) when compared with a wooden bat. In this writer’s opinion (and the opinion of many others), clearly the non-wood bat with a BPF of 1.15 has much more power and/or ability to swing it faster, etc. than a wood bat. It simply hits the ball harder with a much bigger sweet spot than the traditional wood bat.

Finally, when ”composite bats” are discussed, the term refers to composite-barreled bats, not bats with composite handles.

LITTLE LEAGUE BATS

A bit confusing, but go to Littleleague.org and ask either someone you trust and/or a knowledgeable Little League official BEFORE purchasing a bat. In the latter part of 2010, Little League placed a moratorium on composite bats. BUT, there is now a growing list of, to quote the website, “specific models of composite-barreled baseball bats [that] have received a waiver of the moratorium after a testing/approval process.”

While the “normal” (for lack of a better term) bats are still usable in Little League, the composite bat cannot be used unless Little League has granted that particular type of bat a waiver. Again, it is important to go to littleleague.org to see which bats are “usable.” Beware also, that Little League now has a number of caveats attached to their lists, including the most important (confusing?): “These lists do NOT depict all the bats that could be used in games and practices. Such lists would be impossible to compile.”

Little League does tell you that your bat should comply with Little League Rule 1.10 (for the Majors division, that means not more than 33 inches in length nor more than 2-1/4 inch diameter and a BPF of 1.15 or less) and NOT be a banned composite bat. In 2012, in all divisions of Little League above Majors (that is, Junior, Senior and Big League Baseball — ages 13 and over) will go to a BBCOR standard.

HIGH SCHOOL BASEBALL

Inexplicably (or maybe to protect bat inventories in stores?), the National Federation of State High School Associations (“NFHS”) has set forth rules where the BBCOR standard will not go into effect until 2012. There is at least one exception in California, where the BBCOR standard is in effect for the 2011 season. However, in 2011 in high school baseball, a composite bat can be used IF it already meets the tougher BBCOR standard that will become mandatory in 2012.

See the loophole here: In 2011, in high school baseball (other than in California), one can still use a bat with the much looser BESR standard (under NFHS 2011 Baseball Rule Changes at page 2: “Through December 31, 2011, each aluminum bat shall meet the Ball Exit-Speed Ratio (BESR) performance standard.”)

Uh-oh. That means, in this writer’s opinion, that high school baseball in 2011 (everywhere but in California) will be more dangerous than it will be in 2012.

Why wait to make the obvious change?

Be sure to check www.nfhs.org if you (or, if you are the parent, your child) are playing high school baseball this season.

NCAA COLLEGE BASEBALL

The BBCOR rules are in effect for 2011 for any college baseball division that is under the auspices of the NCAA or follows NCAA rules in general. That means that any bat, even a composite bat, that meets the BBCOR standard, can be used in NCAA baseball in 2011. There is also an ABI (Accelerated Break-In) standard that must be met (again, in the past, people have been “rolling” composite bats as such bats get better with use) in order to be a legal bat in 2011. To find out more information, google “NCAA Baseball Bat Standards.” This also means that power numbers will be down in the college game in 2011.

BEWARE THE BAT “SALES”

As noted at the beginning of this article, be very careful in buying a bat this year, especially for high school players. The “sales” you are seeing are, most often, FOR BATS THAT YOUR CHILD MAY NOT BE ABLE TO USE IN 2012. For example, if you buy a BESR bat in 2011 (and, in the northeast, the top-of-the-line of those bats can go for up to $350 or $400), YOUR CHILD CANNOT USE THAT BAT IN HIGH SCHOOL IN 2012.

Proceed with caution.

CHECK YOUR LOCAL LEAGUE’S WEBSITE

Obviously, the above does not cover everything. Travel teams in the summer, often now a much higher level of baseball than high school or Little League (and where serious players will often play with wood bats), go from league to league and tournament to tournament with different rules on virtually a weekly basis.

There are obviously many other leagues. While it appears that American Legion ball has placed a moratorium on composite bats for 2011, BESR bats are still allowed in 2011 and the BBCOR standard will be in effect in 2012 (see www.legion.org). In Babe Ruth/Cal Ripken, it appears that there will be no composite bats allowed in the older divisions (13-15 and 16-18) but in the younger Cal Ripken divisions, composite bats will be allowed in 2011. Other leagues (like Pony Baseball and Dixie Youth Baseball) will not ban composites for the 2011 season.

Softball is beyond the scope of this article but, for example, Little League has not banned composite bats in their softball division. Again, check your local league or state high school federation’s website for more information.

BE CAREFUL

You have to be proactive when buying a baseball bat this year for virtually any baseball player. Speak to a knowledgeable league official but, more important, check the website of your local league or high school federation. Remember, if you buy an expensive BESR bat this season, that bat may be banned next season. If you take advantage of those “sales,” it’s probably a one-year deal.

The rules are pretty confusing. But it’s up to you, the parent (as usual), to do what’s best for your child.

Young Athletes and Sudden Cardiac Death: Will EKG Pre-Screening Help?

By Rick Wolff

After the tragic deaths of Wes Leonard, the 16-year-old HS basketball player from Michigan who collapsed and died just minutes after hitting a game-winning shot and that of 16-year-old Robert Garza of Texas who died 5 minutes into a travel team basketball game, the nation has focused on whether the time has come to make EKG tests mandatory for all athletes.

According to Dr. Franklin Zimmerman, one of the nation’s leading cardiologists, a new Israeli study that was just released suggests that EKG screening really doesn’t offer real substantial help in preventing these kinds of sudden cardiac deaths. On the show, Dr. Zimmerman went through the various kinds of heart conditions that could cause this kind of tragic cardiac event, but he also made it clear that just doing an EKG test is not always going to pinpoint every possible heart ailment. 

However, he also made it clear that parents and coaches have to pay close attention to any symptoms that may suggest a cardiac problem, such as if a youngster complains of shortness of breath, or is feeling faint, or lightheaded during a practice or game. If a youngster shows these signs, then it’s important to get them an EKG exam right away.

Dr. Zimmerman also emphasized the absolute need to make sure that a defibrillator is active and ready to use at all games and practices. Plus, it’s essential that every coach know how to use one. Most HS programs have this emergency apparatus in place by law, but with travel teams which are not regulated, it’s up to the parents and coach to make sure a defibrillator is on hand. When seconds count, it’s an essential piece of equipment.

NOTE TO ASKCOACHWOLFF READERS! As you can tell, we’re in the process of upgrading our blog. Please bear with us over the next couple of weeks as we improve the blog’s overall look and make it more user-friendly. Thanks! – Rick Wolff

Can Top D-I Football Programs Win Without Criminals on Their Roster?

As you could tell from my interview with Jeff Benedict of Sports Illustrated this past Sunday, I was thoroughly impressed with the research he did on the number of “student-athletes” in the top 25 college football programs in the country.

In short, he found that almost every ranked  team had football players who had serious criminal charges in their past. We’re not talking about public intoxication; rather, Benedict found players who had been charged with domestic violence, assault and battery, armed robbery, and so on.

Benedict’s cover story in Sports Illustrated was similar to what he had done a few years ago in a stunning book called PROS AND CONS: The Criminals Who Play in the NFL (in the spirit of public disclosure, I should add that I served as the editor on that book). In PROS AND CONS, Benedict simply went through the criminal court system in all 50 states and matched the names of NFL players with their crimes. As I recall, something like 20% of all the NFL players at that time had either been arrested or convicted of serious violent crimes.

This go-round, Benedict tried the same approach, only checking on the names of college football players in the top Division I programs. What was stunning was that so many of the college coaches either knew about the kid’s criminal background and yet still recruited him OR, in some cases, the coach didn’t know that the kid had run afoul of the law in high school.

As Benedict points out, if the college coaches or their recruiters had done a simple and inexpensive background check on their recruits, they would have found these criminal charges. Talk about not doing your homework.

But there was some good news in all of this. While some have scoffed that college football programs have brought in less-than-desirable football players on their teams for years, Benedict came up with two college teams that didn’t have one kid who had ever been arrested. What was even more amazing was that the two teams – TCU and Stanford – just came off outstanding seasons.

What does that mean? It’s pretty simple. It means that you CAN win with top football players who don’t need to have criminal backgrounds. That’s the big takeaway here — that as a coach, you can maintain high standards and still grind out win after win.

Easton’s New Protective Helmet — How Dare They!

This is just outrageous! As many of you recall, a young HS pitcher named Gunnar Sandberg from California got drilled in the head last year by a baseball off an aluminum bat. Sandberg was seriously injured, but thankfully he’s recovering and back to playing ball this year.

That’s the good news. Now, here comes Easton Sports – -the same people who manufacture and sell aluminum baseball bats – and they announce with great fanfare something called “the Dome” —  a protective helmet for pitchers. And right behind them in this parade is, of course, Little League Baseball, which fully embraces this new product, and hopes that all youth pitchers everywhere start to wear one.

WHOA!! Let’s back up.

First of all, Sandberg got nailed by a line drive OFF AN ALUMINUM BAT – -the kind of bat that Easton makes. Why doesn’t Easton make real news, and announce that they are stop making and selling aluminum bats? Now, that would be welcome news.

Secondly, I would assume that these Domes are going to be sold for a price….meaning that Easton will be making money off of this. Doesn’t that also strike you as bizarre?

Third, if LL Baseball is so concerned about the health of young ballplayers, then why don’t they ban all aluminum bats? Why? Because LL Baseball says that aluminum and wood are exactly the same. What world are they living in? All you have to do is go out and throw batting practice to a kid with an aluminum bat, and then have him use a wood bat, and see for yourself.

Finally, will this Dome device help those pitchers who get hit in the face, or chest, or knee by a ball off an aluminum bat? No, I didn’t think so.

So, Easton and LL Baseball, once again, you’ve made the wrong choice. Just stop making aluminum (and for that matter, composite) bats…and then give out these Dome helmets for free. That’s where you start. Again, this is just outrageous. Think if it were your kid getting hit by a ball like this.

HS Coaches v. Travel Team Coaches: Who do you listen to?

Well, when it comes to top HS athletes,  the bottom line is that travel team coaches (and private instructors) are now pretty much running the show.

And for many sports parents, that might seem like a harsh reality to accept. But with the exception of HS football (and even that is changing), these days, top athletes who are serious about their sport and who harbor dreams of playing in college, are becoming more and more drawn to their travel team (also known as elite, club, premiere, etc.). That is, any team which is outside the purview of the local HS in which the athlete has to try out, and if he or she makes the team, then they have to pay to be on the team (to cover coaching salaries, fields, and refs) and also have to fund their own travel to tournaments, etc. Travel teams can cost a family anywhere from $500 to $5000 or more for a year.

And of course, travel teams play against other elite teams. They also routinely serve as a showcase for college coaches. Plus many times, while the travel team coach might not have a background as an educator, they might bring lots of collegiate or professional experience to their players.

As a result, lots of top HS athletes feel as though listening to the advice and coaching suggestions given to them by their travel coach is extremely valuable – and maybe more valuable than their HS coach can offer.

I come to two conclusions about this: 1) for better or worse, in general —  travel teams – especially for sports like ice hockey, baseball, sofbtall, basketball, soccer, etc – have now replaced HS varsity programs in terms of better competition, prestige, and so on. It’s still great fun for a HS athlete to play for his or her HS varsity, but if they want to compete at the next level, by the time they’re 16 or so, they have to be attached to a travel squad.

2) But that being said, if a student opts to play for their HS team, the student has to recognize that the HS coach rules the roost in terms of his program. That is, if one of his athletes disagrees with the coaching techniques that are offered by the coach, the kid (or his parent) just can’t say, “Well, that’s not what I learned from my travel coach.”  That kind of response is demeaning and insulting to the HS coach. Besides, the truth is that there are lots and lots of traditional HS coaches who know more about the sport in question than the travel coach does.

Bottom line? Since all the athlete wants to do is get better at their sport, they would be well advised to listen to ALL the advice that’s being offered by both their travel team and HS coach, and then decide on their own which approach works best for them. Some real sensitivity and maturity is needed to do this, but if a young athlete can do this, then he or she will end up having the best of both worlds.