Batting scandals aren’t just a baseball thing. Last year, back when “Sammy Sosa” wasn’t synonymous with “cheater,” some of the biggest names in the slo-pitch softball world got caught juicing their bats. In that case, it wasn’t the players who were corking their sticks. Manufacturers were doing the job for them.
The brouhaha broke after an investigation by the Amateur Softball Association of America (ASA), which is the nation’s largest sanctioning body for slo-pitch, with affiliates in every state and the District of Columbia. For years, the ASA had been hearing that, because of advances in bat technology, recreational softball players were walking into batter’s boxes with implements more lethal than anything the coalition of the willing has yet found in Baghdad.
“I quit playing softball about 20 years ago,” says Charles Montrose, who now serves as umpire in chief of the Greater Washington Softball Umpires Association, whose members call games for ASA-affiliated leagues in the area. “And when I played, hitting a home run was a real chore, and all the home-run hitters were at least 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds, guys named Moose or Dog or Horse or some other animal name, and they always played catcher. Suddenly, anybody 5-8 and 160 was a home-run hitter.”
Montrose said he realized bats had gone too far last year, when a small, couple-homers-a-season player he’d gotten to know through umpiring hit four round-trippers in one evening. “I said to him, ‘Ain’t technology grand?’” Montrose says. “But this is obviously a safety issue. It used to be that balls didn’t come at [pitchers and infielders] faster than you could react. I don’t think that’s the case anymore. Something had to be done.”
With mounting statistical evidence about the cheapening of the home run in slo-pitch, and anecdotal evidence that pitchers and third basemen were putting their lives on the line, the ASA took action. The organization, which is based in Oklahoma City, sent staffers into random sporting-goods stores to buy bats that the association had certified as safe. Then it retested them.
The organization found that several off-the-rack bats had far more zing than the prototypes that bat producers had originally sent to it for safety certification. And far more zing than the association’s standards allowed.
So in late August, the ASA issued an emergency notice to all softball leagues under its auspices, calling for an immediate ban on several models of bats. Products from essentially all the traditional manufacturing powerhousesLouisville Slugger, Easton, and Worthwere suddenly made illegal. So, too, were the wares of highly touted new kids on the batting blockMiken and DeMarini, an Oregon company whose line of $300 “double-wall” bats is perhaps most responsible for starting an arms race that broke out among manufacturers a decade ago. Manufacturers were given 30 days to appeal the ban, but as of last weekend every bat banned last year remains on the ASA’s prohibited list.
ASA umpires are now instructed to inspect every bat in the dugout before each game and throw out any of the offending weapons. Any player who steps into a batter’s box with a banned bat will, like Sosa, be called out and thrown out of the game.
“These bats are still out there,” says Kelly Grosskopf, an ump with the Fairfax Softball Umpires Association (FSUA). “Some of it is because players still haven’t gotten word that the bats they paid a couple hundred dollars for are now illegal, and some of it is because these manufacturers started dumping the banned bats on the market at greatly reduced prices. So we find the bats, and we get excuses like ‘I didn’t know they were banned,’ or, my favorite, ‘I thought they were only banned for one year.’”
Last week, an FSUA ump working games in Falls Church found nine illegal bats in one double-header.
Few folks are as well-equipped to understand batting scandals as Montrose. Along with his umpiring gig, Montrose is head of the physics department at Catholic University. So he not only knows why batters want loaded bats, he understands how these bats work.
When he was a kid playing ball and dreaming about making a career of it, Montrose admits, he occasionally heard stories about other guys loading their bats. And he began formulating a diabolical plan of his own, though one that called for the use of much more highfalutin materials than Sosa’s corking scheme.
“It struck me as a kid that it would be a great thing to hollow out a bat and load it with liquid mercury,” he says. “Mercury is heavy, and it’s liquid, so when you swing, the mercury would fly up the handle and you’d get the right energy transfer. It’s a centrifugal thing. Like everybody else, I loved the long ball, and I could hit the long ball back then! I never had access to mercury, or learned how to hollow out a bat, but when I was 15, that really sounded like a great way to cheat.”
Montrose doesn’t buy the opinion of some of his physics-realm peers that corked bats, for all their hype, really aren’t as effective as uncorked bats. “On this one, I’m going to go with the experimentersthat’s the players,” he says. “They’ve used the corked bats, and I have to believe they would know what works.”
Besides, Montrose learned to distrust the scientific community’s opinions on sporting matters during his own playing days, when scientists used to argue that curve balls don’t really curve.
“I always heard that ‘curve balls don’t break’ when I was a kid, and I could never figure out where that one came from,” Montrose says. “Anybody who’s ever hit against a curve ball, you know damn well they break. I know damn well they break. I mean, that’s why I’m a physicist and not a major-leaguer.” Dave McKenna