There are few players around who remember what it was to hit a ball with a wood bat and those that remain are likely in senior leagues at best. Yet those days now reserved for grandfathers' memories may eventually come bubbling back with the crack of the bat replacing the ping.
For safety reasons - concerns about how quickly a ball comes off the bat - the NCAA outlawed aluminum composite bats this year and high school programs are going to follow them beginning with the 2011-2012 season. The National Federation of High Schools originally joined the NCAA but then rescinded its decision, creating confusion that has filtered through the high school ranks and downward.
"For baseball people it's the most confusing thing we've had to go through in my 20 years in this office," said Gene Menees, an assistant executive director for the TSSAA.
Confusion has become a watchword.
"The whole bat issue - I have been honestly confused since April of last year. I felt like I finally got it figured out and then the word on street is that a bat company was ready to file a suit and NFHS backed off it's change," offered Soddy-Daisy coach Jared Hensley.
"I don't know if anybody knows still what's legal and what isn't," added Signal Mountain coach Bumper Reese.
"Who knows about the bats? It's hard to tell a difference this year [on the high school level] because we're still using the old bats," McMinn Central coach Travis Hart said.
Reese didn't know the national federation had reversed its stance until a preseason scrimmage and an umpire told him and East Hamilton coach Steve Garland.
"All composite bats are supposedly legal again. We were at Rhea County playing a couple of games last week and the umpire pulled out a piece of paper he got from the TSSAA that listed legal and illegal bats. He was the first umpire I know of that had a list on his person. But the next day we're playing at Sequatchie County and [coach] Aaron Simmons said they were playing at Warren County and had four bats thrown out," Reese said.
"If kid wants to use a bat, then let him use that bat. What worries me are kids going to get used to these bats and then come district tournament time and a kid gets a hit and then gets called out for using a illegal bat."
Because of safety and legal issues, Ooltewah coach Brian Hitchcox checks his club's bat rack before games and has no problem with umpires doing the same.
"While bat companies were upset about getting stuck with some inventory, insurance companies are afraid of lawsuits," he said. "If, for example, an Ooltewah kid used an illegal bat and somebody got hurt as a result of that, the injured player could sue the coach, the umpire, the school and the school system."
Legal bats will be eventually stamped with BBCOR (Bat-Ball Coefficient of Restitution) and/or BESR (Ball Exit Speed Ratio), meaning they have been tested and they meet safety standards established by the NCAA, the NFHS and other national baseball organizations reaching down even to Dizzy Dean and Dixie Youth levels.
"If you bought and are using a BBCOR bat then you're playing at a disadvantage [at the high school level this year," said Mike Tindell, owner of Sports Spectrum. "Dizzy Dean outlawed some that we have in stock. Most of our teams are buying BESR bats, which are legal."
Buying bats has gotten quite expensive, costing consumers anywhere from $300 to $350 for high-end products, so many patrons want to make sure they're getting a product they can use for more than a year.
"Speaking as a parent and as a retailer, the change is great from a safety perspective but the timing was horrible," observed Kevin Burke, co-owner of Varsity Team Sports.
Hitters like Soddy-Daisy outfielder and Lee University commitment James Fowlkes, are using bats that originally would have been deemed illegal this year.
"I used the new [rule] bat and if you use it and then use a wood bat the ball travels further with the wood bat," said Fowlkes, who entered the weekend leading the Chattanooga area in home runs (nine) and RBIs (25). "I actually like hitting with wood a lot better. It shows you can actually hit. You can swing at a mistake with an aluminum bat and still get a hit."
Colleges have no choice.
"We're using the BBCOR bat and it is not as live a bat. It can affect your style of play," Chattanooga State coach Greg Dennis said. "It hasn't had a huge impact on us like it has on the [NCAA] Division I level where you see teams that are hitting 75-100 home runs in more of a power-based game."
Whether the new bats are good or not depends on the perspective, he said.
"It's a good thing if you talk to pitchers."
There is a definite difference, though, for hitters.
"If you get jammed [by a pitch] now, you're jammed whereas before you could still hit it 300 feet," Dennis said. "Our staff's approach is that we not would let [bat changes] be a factor. We told them, 'Guys, this is the way it is. If they say roll up a towel, tape it and use that, then we have to go with it.'"
Dennis said he wouldn't be surprised to see wood bats make a comeback Reese is among high school coaches who might appreciate it.
"I was pitching batting practice from behind a screen and just a small part of me was sticking out. I took a shot right below my rib cage that's still black, yellow and orange, and it still hurts to walk," the Signal coach said. "The new bats, though; they're going to force people to play a lot more fundamentals. The home run totals are way down in college. "I've got about 10 years [to coach] left and I'm not so sure we won't see a return of wood bats before I go."
Garland doesn't care which bat is used.
"I'm not admitting I'm old, but this [bat] situation is confusing," the 40-year-old said. "I don't care if umpires throw a bat out. I pay more attention to the batter and what he's doing with the bat than the bat itself."
The bat rule confusion and how it came about as told by Gene Menees of the TSSAA:
"The national federation, in last year's rule book, said that the bat change would be effective Jan. 1, 2012. Composite bats were going to be illegal. But what happened between late spring [last year] and early summer] the NCAA ruled all composite bats illegal. When they did that we were then told that national federation had done the same - a year earlier than what they had planned.
"We got word out to schools - composite bats are now illegal - with the idea of saving some money for the parents who were buying most of the bats. Then some time in late July or early August [of 2010], the bat manufacturers all went to Indianapolis [NFHS headquarters] and the next thing we knew the rule was back to the original date of 2012."