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Slugging for tradition

Ah, summertime.

That sweet, relaxing time of year when one can sit outside, recline with a cold ice tea and watch the boys of summer engaged in an exhilarating game of baseball — America’s pastime.

The sights and sounds are so familiar:

The taught, nearly stiff feel of a newly purchased glove.

The gnats floating by your eyes as you stare down the right field line, waiting with bent knees for the batter to take a swing.

The loud “ting” of the bat as a ball is knocked once again into the air above your head.

Wait, one of those doesn’t fit.

Did that bat just make a “ting” sound?

Everyone knows that baseball needs that satisfying crack of wood on the leather-bound ball of wound yarn.

It’s a sound that every Phillies fan awaits once Ryan Howard or Chase Utley — or recently even All-Star pitcher Cliff Lee — steps to the plate.

But, for the most part, in Little League and high school and even college, players are allowed to use aluminum bats.

In the river wards, some are hoping to stay true to the origins of the sport with a wood bat-only league.

According to Tim Racek, president and baseball director of the Leprechauns Sport Association in Port Richmond, the idea is not only to return to the more traditional game, but to remove the expensive equipment costs — and the often unfair benefits gained through the more costly metal bats.

“To play baseball, you’ve got to be able to hit with a wood bat,” said Racek on Wednesday, July 13, as he led a practice with some of his players at the field at Gaul and Ann streets.

With a wooden bat, says Racek, “kids aren’t afraid of the ball anymore because it doesn’t come at them like a rocket.”

This isn’t an assumption either.

A quick search online shows that studies have found that balls hit by aluminum bats are hit harder than those by wood bats.

A study published in 2001 (the Crisco-Greenwald Batting Cage Study), found that on average, balls hit by aluminum bats traveled about 8 mph faster than those hit by wood bats.

Also, Racek said, aluminum bats have more of a “sweet spot” or ideal area of the bat to connect with the ball, making for better hits, more consistently.

By contrast, wooden bats, he said, have a sweet spot about two inches smaller.

“This is a more pure game,” said Paul Bonewicz, coach of the Leprechauns’ wood bat league for ages 14 and under.

Bonewicz said that as children, all of the coaches played with wooden bats. Aluminum, he said, took some of the skill out of hitting.

“Put it this way: you could buy an aluminum bat for $400 and the bat’s going to do all the work for you,” he said.

This brought up another concern: the fact that some players have advantages of science, depending on how much they may be willing to spend on baseball equipment.

Before they set up the wood bat league last year, the coaches said they often had games where teams would decimate their opponents, based heavily on which team had the better equipment.

In this league, they said, even with players of varying caliber, having wooden bats has kept games from becoming unrelenting blowouts.

“We saw games go from 10 to seven to three to two,” said Racek. “Teams are never out of the game anymore. They always have a chance … Besides, if you can hit consistently with a wooden bat, you’ll be a much better player when you go to high school or college.”

The players themselves said they noticed the difference between using an aluminum bat and a one made of wood.

Chris Hammerstein, a 15-year-old who plays for the Bridesburg Cougars on the wood bat team, said even though it makes it harder to hit, you learn to be a better player because the league allows different pitches that aren’t usually permitted in a typical aluminum bat league.

Pitchers are allowed to throw breaking balls in the wood bat league; most aluminum bat leagues don’t allow that, said Racek.

“I like that I can really throw a breaking ball,” Hammerstein said. “In a lot of leagues you can’t … It makes you a stronger hitter. You just have to learn more.”

Last year, the wood bat league started with just four teams, but Racek said the league plans to grow to six teams this year — the summer league starts in a few weeks. Sign ups are still underway for the wood bat league to be held in the fall.

The Leprechauns field three teams of 10 to 12 players each, in age groups from ages 14 and under, 12 and under and ten and under.

Racek said he’s looking forward to starting the league again this year and that he enjoys the game more because it evens the playing field for players and removes a lot of the expensive equipment from the game.

“You should see it, kids like nine or ten years old with $300 bats their parents bought them,” he said. “They are just like a trampoline. The ball just jumps.”

To get involved with one of the wood bat leagues, visit www.leaguelineup.com/leprechaunssports or call the Leps clubhouse at 215–423–6309.••

Reporter Hayden Mitman can be reached at 215–354–3124 or hmitman@bsmphilly.com

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