I’m driving to a location I’ve sworn not to disclose.
As I swerve off the highway exit ramp, the sun breaks through the filtering haze of the lingering marine layer. It pitches my eyes into a deep shadow, a fitting tone for the deeply nefarious act I am about to participate in.
Slow-pitch softball batting practice.
While I’ve brought along my own bat — a hand-me-down green Mizuno Envy, made in China and approved for play by all the sanctioned softball leagues — mostly, I’ll be using those provided by my source, who wishes, hopes and prays to stay anonymous. See, my tipster — let’s call him “Deep Out” from this point forward — has been playing in amateur slow-pitch softball leagues and tournaments throughout California and the greater American Southwest for the past quarter-century. While his longevity gives him credibility, it’s his stash that makes him the person I most need to meet with.
Bats. Illegal bats. Seriously illegal, banned-in-softball-games-throughout-the-world bats.
My car is parked next to the field. Scores of schoolchildren bandy about, some offering heartfelt attempts to “tag” one another in the game of the same name, others waiting their turn for hot dogs and Slushies. For now, they are innocents, pure of heart, oblivious to the dark crevices that simmer just below the surface of adult interactions. But soon enough, they’ll know. Soon enough, they’ll be stained like the rest of us.
A car pulls into the lot, claiming the spot farthest from mine, facing the opposite direction. The windows aren’t tinted, yet the driver is, somehow, cast in silhouette. Everything, that is, except for his eyes. They glare back through his rearview, the dual mirrors acting as connective tissue for this initial bout of sizing-up. He closes his eyes, relaxes his shoulders, and exits the vehicle. I follow his lead.
We lock eyes. He nods. I do the same. He heaves a black duffel bag out of his popped trunk; I put my green bat on my shoulder. We walk onto the field.
“This one’s rolled,” Deep Out says, and removes a metallic rod from his bag and drops it near the plate. “This one’s shaved. This one’s end-loaded,” he drops a pair of bats and reaches for another. “This one’s shaved and end-loaded.” When he’s done, a quartet of bats lie near the batter’s box. He offers them up with a broad swipe of his hand, not unlike an arms dealer showcasing his wares on a motel room bed, signaling me that it’s time to pick my poison. I have come to see just how different a normal, legal bat swings compared to a “hot bat.”
My first swings are with the legal bat I own. They’re what I’m used to, with a sizable sweet spot that deadens the force but also allows for perfect control, ideal for my usual strategy of pushing the ball over the second baseman’s head. This sets a baseline for comparison. My subsequent swings are with D.O.’s bats, which have been turned illegal through various means by various technicians. Their sweet spots are wider, the swings more natural, the trauma they produce more blunt.
And after dozens of balls struck in this round of wicked BP, I assure you, guiltless reader, the modifications matter. In Seinfeld parlance, the difference between using an illegal bat and a legal one is real, and it is spectacular.
“It’s the dark side of softball,” D.O. says with a smirk. “If you’re in a softball league, I guarantee someone’s swinging a hot bat.”
After a months-long search into the use of “doctored” bats in amateur softball, D.O. is the only person willing to meet me in person. In fact, he’s one of the few people willing even to speak with me about their usage. This is the extremely paranoid world of “bat doctoring,” the dark and ridiculous subsection of one of our nation’s most tame neighborhood sports, where some players spend upwards of four figures and literally risk lives to hit a ball kinda far and maybe, just maybe … win a cheap plastic trophy or nearly-unwearable T-shirt at the end of the season.
As long as there’s been competition, people have attempted to gain an advantage. Amateur softball, despite near-zero stakes and, let’s be honest, a reasonably low level of athletic skill needed to participate, is no different. But the morality of that depends on a consensus of what is fair, and what is not. That is to say, before cheating can take place, rules that clearly delineate acts that constitute cheating must be present.
Once, it was different. “It wasn’t so much cheating, as nobody knew the rules,” said Gregg “Sparky” Mann, a Michigan-based softball veteran who has played and managed since the ’60s. Back then, a lot of leagues played by their own rules, and there really weren’t very many of them.
At that point, softball had been around for decades. Organizations like the Amateur Softball Association (ASA) and United States Specialty Sports Association (USSSA, colloquially abbreviated to “U-Trip”) nominally took the lead in terms of getting everyone on the same page as far as the basic rules, codifying a backyard game to make sure it was basically played the same way everywhere.
But there were still opportunities to cheat. As Sparky tells it, despite attempts to govern the sport, the ’60s were an era of clandestine, free-flowing DIY experiments to test the limits of softball’s honor code. Balls were sometimes kept in coolers to make them harder and, therefore, allow them to travel a little farther. After the microwave oven came into wide use in the 1970s, balls were soaked, thrown in, and baked from the inside-out, hardening them even further. One pitcher he knew of introduced himself to new batters by turning his back, removing flash paper from his pocket, inserting it into his glove, lighting it, and throwing his pitch. “All of a sudden, you have a flame coming out of his glove, and he’d have you for dinner,” recalled Sparky.
But those escapades were nothing compared to what they did to the “sticks.” Once upon a time, bats were all made of wood, and opportunities to get an edge limited. Softball bat barrels are thinner than hardball bats, 2 1/4” in diameter, 1/2” less than hardball bats of the era (once 2 ¾”, now 2 5/8”), and there just wasn’t much that could be done with them.
Then, in 1969, revolution. The bat manufacturer Easton released the first true aluminum bat, opening the floodgates for other companies to put their own versions on the market. The ball clearly rebounded off aluminum more quickly, and traveled farther; a subsequent examination into why pointed to the bat’s hollow construction, which caused the bat to compress, then spring back, “trampolining” the batted ball upon contact. Shortly thereafter, sports equipment Darwinism relegated wooden bats to the chipper.
With these new instruments, came new methods of subterfuge. “We’d put all kinds of crap inside of them,” said Sparky, anything to give them some kind of extra juice, to make the trampoline effect more pronounced: Tennis balls, rubber balls, various weights on the handle or towards the top of the bat. But it wasn’t until the introduction of titanium bats that the softball world took a dangerous turn.
Titanium is an element that, when alloyed with another metal like iron or aluminum, produces a substance that’s both incredibly tough and comparatively light, a combination with many benefits. In the 1950s and ’60s, the Soviet Union pioneered titanium’s use by utilizing it in military airplanes, submarines, and rockets aimed at the moon and America. In the early ’90s, that technology was brought onto another field of warfare, now used to produce rocket shots over the fence.
In 1993, Easton, once again, was the trendsetter with the introduction of their STI1 Titanium Typhoon. It was made from a sheet of 0.053-inch thick titanium, rolled into a tube and welded. That same year, Worth introduced the Titanium Ti51 bat — which, rumor has it, was developed five years earlier but kept under lock-and-key due to fears over how it would surely change the game; Easton’s release forced Worth’s hand — which included a 0.051-inch thick seamless titanium tube with an aluminum knob welded to the handle. Then Louisville Slugger got into the mix with their TPS Titanium bat, which used a specially designed endcap to plug into the barrel’s top. Each retailed between $500 and $800 — five or eight times the cost of a “normal,” off-the-shelf, department store aluminum softball bat.
Titanium changed the game. It allowed barrel walls to be thinner and still avoid denting. (One early way to disallow aluminum bats was to take a metal ring and run it over the bat, and if it caught on anything or revealed a dent, it was ushered off the field.) More importantly, it afforded batters the ability to produce ball exit speeds between 100 and 103 miles per hour, roughly 10 mph quicker than possible with most aluminum bats, which was already roughly 10 percent quicker than a wood bat.
The pitcher’s mound for amateur slow-pitch softball varies according to the field and age of players, but is generally between 40 and 50 feet from home. This means that after a ball is hit, assuming an exit velocity of between 78 and 102 mph, the pitcher has between 0.456 and 0.350 seconds to react to a batted ball. Adding exit velocity shaves precious micro-seconds off that time. That was what made titanium bats so dangerous. Softballs became missiles and pitchers became targets. And the dangers are real. Players have lost teeth, eyesight, motor function, IQ points and even their lives when struck by balls hit off hot bats.
In fact, the change was so drastic that Louisville Slugger printed this warning on the barrels of its TPS bats:
WARNING! Balls hit with this titanium bat may come off harder and quicker which may reduce reaction time for defensive players. Please warn everyone when using these titanium bats. Failure to alert could result in injury.
Most leagues responded to these new bats by banning the hell out of them. But enough still allowed their use — and enough pick-up games without stringent bat rules still took place at company picnics and in suburban backyards — that companies continued selling them, and tinkering with ways to further increase performance.
In 2001, Louisville Slugger’s Genesis, a composite bat, won first place for “Performance” at Florida’s Bat Wars, an annual series of events that allow bat and ball manufacturers to show off their latest innovations. The victory marked the first time that a composite took home the honor. Louisville Slugger tweaked the standard titanium design by utilizing a re-enforced carbon polymer that provided better durability, a better weight distribution, less “sting” on the hands, a wider and longer “sweet spot,” and an even more potent trampolining effect, spawning even more composites.
These bats offered a wide span of exit velocities. While many were in the relatively-comfortable-for-the-opposition mid-90s mph range, some — Miken’s Ultra and Easton’s Synergy, for starters — achieved exit velocities in excess of 105 mph. They were the “hottest sticks” ever produced, and leagues adjusted their rules accordingly.
They banned the hell out of them.
Both the ASA and USSSA disqualified these high performance bats and soon developed a laboratory-based testing procedure, only authorizing bats that peaked below a certain exit velocity for league-sanctioned play. (For ASA, that speed is 98 mph; for USSSA, it’s 103 mph.) Manufacturers responded to the restrictions by allowing buyers to return their old bats to be “dampened” — by, for example, cracking them open and sticking foam inside — in order to pass the new rules. Others simply developed lower-performance versions of their best-sellers.
And so, the sport entered a unique period, albeit one that’s common in just any other field, from lawn-mower racing to NASCAR, any sport where velocity is at a premium. Here we have firmly declared rules, wherein only bats below a certain performance threshold are allowed. And here’s a wide selection of easily accessed products that surpass that threshold. Add an increasing number of studies examining how these bats achieve such high levels of performance, and the proliferation of such information through the game-changer that is The Almighty Internet, and the result is some heavily disseminated ways to tweak legal bats above the allowed performance levels.
It’s the same old story, really, whether it’s drugs or guns or any other illicit product. If a market desires the product, there is profit to be made. To solve the inefficiency, the capitalist world often constructs a bridge to satisfy the consumer. And if that doesn’t happen legally, well, then a group of duplicitous ferrymen emerge, happy to cross the river and take a toll for their troubles.
The Bat Doctors were in.
“I need to know you are legit before I talk to you,” wrote the bat doctor. “How do I know you are who you say you are?”
I’d been posting on a wide range of softball-related forums, responding to ads on Craigslist, asking my softball teammates for any “ins,” even cold-calling/texting online retailers, trying to track down just one ferryman who’d allow a glimpse into this secret world. One bat doctor forced me to explain how speaking to me would benefit his company — which I attempted to do, with various explanations of the reach and breadth of SB Nation’s audience base — only to be thwarted by his legal representation. “I spoke with my attorney and he advised not to,” that particular bat doctor replied. “I’ll pass.”
But now, finally, after weeks of attempts and dozens of false starts, I finally had an in. But there was the issue of providing evidence of my veracity, to prove I wasn’t a softball narc.
I linked to a bunch of my stories. I sent a message from my Facebook account, which included my photo. I even changed my Twitter profile page to include not only my email address, but also my phone number and a brief message to my potential source. “Haha that works. Thanks!” he wrote back. I quickly changed my Twitter profile back.
I composed a slew of questions. How does this all work? Who orders these bats? How do the transactions go down? Do leagues ever actually check? I sent these warm-up queries, along with carefully constructed introduction highlighting my as-yet undefined moral position regarding the usage of doctored bats, bait to give him a platform on which to come to the defense of his dark art. The idea was that he’d look over them before we exchanged phone numbers and had a real conversation.
I waited for his response. And waited. And waited. A week later, I pinged him, hoping the interview simply slipped his mind.
“I have decided not to interview,” he coldly wrote back. “Sorry for time lost.”
The hesitancy, even paranoia that this bat doctor — and many others I contacted — displayed when I went digging is expected and understood. What, really, is the benefit of speaking to an outsider about this? There is, after all, not an insignificant amount of money in the business. For a sense of how much, one need only examine the story of Robert Russell — known as “Bobby Buggs” due to his off-the-field career as an entomologist — who made a killing as a bat doctor at the turn of the millennium.
According to a 2005 Wall Street Journal piece, Buggs didn’t like the pop he was getting out of his new $500 bat. So, he took off the bat’s endcap, poked around inside, brought the bat into his machine shop, and shaved down the inside of the barrel. When Buggs took the bat out for a few swings, he noticed that the ball went further; the loss of weight and even thinner wall provided both quicker bat speed and more powerful trampolining effect. “He was a Zen master on PSTs,” said Deep Out, referencing a specific style of aluminum bat produced by Worth. “He figured out how to shave them, and they were flat-out nasty sticks.” Buggs posted his findings on softball message boards, and soon was taking orders from players around the world.
A market was born.
“Shaving,” is merely one of the ways a bat can be doctored, and subsequent doctors expanded the possibilities. “Rolling” is, by far, the most common. The idea behind it is that a composite bat takes some usage — “500 hits” is a popular number, but surely an inexact and impure science — before the fibers and epoxy break down enough to allow the bat to be used to its full potential. To speed the process, bat doctors place the bat into a specially constructed machine that artificially pounds in those hits. Another method — “end-loading” — adds extra weight towards the top of the bat to increase torque, like swinging a hammer. “Painting,” meanwhile, is the most rarely used method, the equivalent of counterfeiting, taking a bat known to be illegal and masking the cover to make it look like a known legal bat. A quick and dirty method is simply printing the “ASA approved” stamp onto an illegal bat, since that’s what umps mostly look at when they’re checking bats prior to the game.
While Buggs is, now, long-retired from the world of bat doctoring — the WSJ story acted as a sort of career retrospective after Russell decided to “go legit” by becoming head of the appropriately named sporting goods company Evil Sports — there’s no shortage of bat doctors currently in business. “It’s mostly word of mouth,” said D.O. “In any big city, there’s 10, 20 guys that can shave.” That’s a lot of guys, hundreds, even thousands.
Not in a big city? No problem. Head to eBay and search for “juiced softball bats,” or the seemingly benign code name “home run softball bats.” Not in the mood to bid? No problem, there are any number of online-based retailers that, for a modest fee, allow players to send in their legal bats, have them juiced up, and sent back. (Although, the standard buyer beware that comes with any black market dealings apply: “There are some people that say ‘Screw it,’” said D.O. “They put one little mark in the endcap and say it’s shaved.”) They are also, as previously illustrated, extremely tight-lipped about the process.
But, persistence pays off: At the eleventh hour, a lone bat doctor agreed to speak with me.
He’s the president of a company called OutlawedBats.com. For $80, they’ll shave the bat down to, according to the site, “just about any weight you like within reason” and return the bat a few days later. For $25, they’ll even roll the bat for you. Or players can simply purchase a wide range of pre-juiced bats. The [sic’d] disclaimer at the end of every product description, red-fonted and underlined on the website, reads:
Once this work has been done use these bats only for EXHIBITIONS or HOMERUN DERBY’S. I am NOT RESPONSIBLE for anyone who chose’s to use these bats in sanctioned play. Perfect for the player playing in unrestricted associations.
The bold is not added on my behalf, but rather on the disclaimers themselves, making them not unlike the warnings on prescription drugs not to mix with alcohol - a neon sign to do just that.
“I make people sign waivers saying they’re not going to use it in sanctioned play,” the company’s founder, who wished to stay anonymous, told me. “It’s like tinting your front windows even though it’s illegal. The shop’s going to do it for you, and you’re going to pay for it.”
This particular bat doctor has been performing such duties for 14 years, and fulfills anywhere from 100 to 300 orders a month, from all over the country. California and New Jersey are his biggest markets, along with Texas. “I do bats for a lot of military, actually,” he said. “But about the dirtiest teams are cops.” Keep that in mind the next time your local PD enters a charity tournament. Those longballs don’t come from swinging nightsticks.
The work on each bat, he says, can take between 15 minutes to an hour, depending on his own experience with the type of bat. “Getting the cap off clean is the number one most important thing, because if it looks like it’s been pried off, you’re going to have problems down the road.” He’s particularly proud of his ability to hack into Worth’s Mutant bat. “It used to be undoable. I actually broke two of them figuring out how. But then I was one of the only ones who could do it, and it kind of pays for itself.”
As far as qualms regarding his profession, he figures that if he didn’t do it, someone else would. And, more to the point, all he’s really doing is leveling an already-corrupt playing field, one bat at a time. “Everybody does it. You’re at a disadvantage if you’re not using them,” the bat doctor said. “Once people hear about it, it’s on. I’d say over 50 percent of players, when it’s brought to their attention [that bat doctoring is possible], and they think other people are doing it, they do it as well.”
Leagues have tried to counter this new black market by doctoring the rules. “When our association discovered that bats could be altered and gain enhanced performance above our bat standard, stiffer penalties were instituted as a deterrent,” wrote Craig Cress, the president of ASA, in an email to me years ago when I first started examining this story. [Further attempts to interview Cress about this issue proved fruitless.] Depending on the league, the penalties run from a slap-on-the-wrist (the batter is out, the bat confiscated) to a punch-across-the-jaw (a year-long ban). However, due to the vast number of softball leagues in existence and the lack of communication between them, bans are essentially meaningless.
The ASA has also instituted the use of compression-testing machines at some tournaments, which supposedly make sure bats being used don’t exceed the authorized exit velocity threshold. But due to their cost, they are also not widely used, and even when they are, according to the bat doctor, they don’t really work. “In a national tournament, I brought six bats with me. Four were ‘done,’” he said. “Three of my shaved bats passed, and one of my stock bats did not pass. It’s a joke. They’re just used as a scare tactic.”
The most common protectors of bat sanctity are the equivalent to the cops on the beat, league umpires, who are given a list of which bats are legal and which are not. They follow the list, and check bats by reading the sticker on the barrel. But beyond that, well, you can’t realistically expect an umpire to judge, by feel alone, that a bat which should weigh 28 ounces is actually only 26 ounces, a clear sign of tinkering. And this assumes the umps know what they’re looking for. In one of my leagues, an umpire has taken to tapping his ring on the barrel and listening, as if he’s trying to crack a safe. However, not unlike your college major, while it looks important, it ultimately holds little significance.
So unless someone confiscates a bat, breaks it open, and examines the insides to see if any doctoring has taken place, there’s no way to know. “Then you run the risk of taking someone’s $300 bat and ruining it,” said the bat doctor. “If it was me personally, I wouldn’t let them take my bat. They’re not the cops,” he chuckles, before telling me that none of his customers have ever had their bats confiscated. Which essentially leaves it up to the players themselves to police themselves.
In the legendary and ethereal Book of Unwritten Baseball Rules, there lies a passage — with, certainly, plenty of footnotes and scribbles in the margin — detailing the retribution that a team can, if it chooses to do so, enact when the opposition is playing dirty. This includes actions like throwing at the team’s best hitter, throwing at the pitcher, or sliding into a base with one’s spikes aimed at the infielder’s unprotected legs. In the sport of slow-pitch softball, since you can’t hurt a batter with a pitch and there are too few plays that call for sliding (and metal spikes are banned in slow-pitch anyway), there is a modified version for avenging slights, both real and perceived. It is called “shooting middle.”
Essentially, this means the batter purposefully tries to hit the ball back at the pitcher. The reason for this is not necessarily because the pitcher is at fault for starting whatever silly meathead-driven round of anger that demands vengeance. Rather, it’s because the pitcher is in the unique position of being closest to the plate and, thusly, most in danger. “You’re trying to put it through somebody,” said D.O., of shooting middle. “They try not to do it in the higher divisions, because they know they can kill somebody.”
Many pitchers I’ve played with have taken to tossing pitches with the hesitancy of a greenhorn lobbing a hand grenade, immediately backpedaling to give them a few extra precious micro-seconds of reaction time.
It is, without a doubt, the most dangerous position in the game.
I’ve been hit in the face with a softball before. It was not fun. It was a two-hopper, not with the greatest velocity, but with either mysterious backspin or the unfortunate luck of striking an errant stone, or some combination thereof. My reactive mental calculation of where it was supposed to go (down near my shin) wasn’t even close (up and into my right eye socket). It left me with a bad headache, a month-long black eye serious enough that casual acquaintances refused to draw attention to it or risk getting locked into the troubling story of how it came to be, and internal breaks to my nasal passage. This frighteningly then hilariously allowed me to inflate an air bubble around my eye when I blew my nose, but without lasting serious damage. But it was also a ground ball. And I was playing third base.
This, then, is what makes the use of illegal softball bats so dangerous. Not necessarily players purposefully “shooting middle” as much as the fact that pitchers are in the direct line of danger. Someone who knows how to handle a softball bat isn’t the problem, as much as modestly skilled players who don’t know how to control their hot sticks. “Put a shaved stick in the hands of one of those muscle-heads, and it’s dangerous, man,” said D.O.
In part, this is why Steve Butler and Bob Woodward — two longtime softball players in Texas, the former a YouTube star in the softball world, with a channel boasting over a million views — released a pair of videos in 2010 that, ostensibly, show how to shave a bat.
The videos are slapstick mini-masterpieces for softball aficionados, with Butler and Woodward giving famed comedy duos through history a run for their money as a pair of buffoons — Butler the boisterous, over-the-top funny man; Woodward the perfectly droll, hyper-vocal straight man, filling in dead air with improvised lines — desperately trying to get into a bat to juice it up. Besides being hilarious, the videos respond to what they consider a real problem.
“We were trying to show how silly and stupid [cheaters] are acting,” said Woodward. (If you really want insight into just how silly/stupid they can be, check out the video’s “comments” section.) “It’s ruined the game for a lot of people. Why should I give my money when I know I don’t have a chance to win unless I want to pay $300 for a bat, another $150 to get it doctored, whatever the tournament entry fee is, and risk somebody getting hurt, possibly for life. All to win a T-shirt? [laughs] It just doesn’t make any sense.”
Woodward knows how dangerous a hot stick can be. Two years ago, a relative of his, Russell Templeton, was pitching in a game in the evocatively named Texas town of Gun Barrel City. Moments after delivering a pitch, the projectile was completely halted by an obstacle in its path, Templeton’s face. Tally up the injuries, subsequent surgeries, and lasting trauma from that lone moment on the field — 21 fractures to the right side of his face, a broken eye socket, broken nose, torn nasal cavity, broken cheek bone; two different facial reconstruction surgeries, including the rebuilding of his crushed sinus cavity; compromised vision, smell, taste, and a changed layout of his nasal passage, so that now he gets sick “every time the wind blows” — and it’s no wonder he gave up the game.
“We’re pretty sure it was a doctored bat,” said Woodward. “By the time the [league] director got there, because of all the commotion, the bat that was used disappeared. They never did find it.”
Woodward, in fact, has become a sort of one-man enforcer against illegal bats, slow pitch softball’s Charles Bronson. About a decade ago, he filed a series of lawsuits on behalf of the ASA and certain bat manufacturers against specific “bat doctors.” The genius legal gymnastics regarding what law was being broken by these doctors? Copyright infringement, since the designs and logos were on materials the companies did not sell and, thusly, would “produce widespread consumer confusion and deception” as well as “irreparable injury” to the leagues and manufacturers. “Because of [the lawsuits], they went underground,” said Woodward.
He also designed his own bat endcap that would, if used, solve the problem. It came in two pieces, and when you pressed a button, a window would open that allowed the inside of the bat to be seen, making it easy to tell if a bat had been tampered with. However, the endcap was never authorized for use. “They said a two-piece endcap is dangerous and they would not allow it,” said Woodward. “Some of the things they come up with, I’m not sure how they determine what’s a danger and what’s not.”
Occasionally, players will protest a bat to an umpire, but that rarely happens. Rather, because of the inadequacy of rules and regulation, the self-policing generally comes down to eye-for-an-eye retribution. “A telltale sign is when you start seeing everyone use the same bat,” said D.O. “All those bats are sitting there, but there’s one bat being used. Then it’s, ‘You put yours away, we’ll put ours away.’”
So, then: How does this problem actually get fixed?
The desire to swing juiced bats is not going away. That’s because the desire to hit balls really high and really far is not going to ebb. Get ahold of one, through means legitimate or ill, and that’s all you want to do from then on out. Chicks dig the long ball, sure, but dudes dig them a whole lot more. Everybody wants to be Babe Ruth.
And hot bats do make a difference.
Back on that nameless, soiled field, where I took my round of disreputable BP, the balls shot off the dirty bats with the force of a cannon, the pinging sound masking the peril. On average, it allowed my hits to travel between 20 and 40 feet further. In addition, the bat’s sweet spot was extended, and the entire swing just felt smoother, as if I was expending half the usual energy to create the blasts.
A few times I struck the ball, accidentally, directly back towards my tipster, who was lobbing me pitches. Thankfully, he had the foresight to pitch from behind a protective net on the mound. Otherwise, this story would have made a side-trip to the hospital, where I’d surely have waited until darkness enveloped the sky to drive to the receiving entrance and push him out before flooring it and peeling away, distancing myself from this sleazy side of the sport I care deeply about.
D.O. tried to disarm the tension by joking about how I was “one of those guys who go middle,” a slight hint of worry forming in his eyes, before ducking back behind the net. I wasn’t worried at all, of course. I had the bat in my hand. This, frankly, is the kind of confidence these clubs instill upon those who wield them. If I wasn’t already dealing with all sorts of internalized guilt, most likely remnants from my Catholic upbringing, I’d totally consider dropping the $80 or so on a modified bat.
The only way to stop hot bats, then, is through actions by the leagues or manufacturers. Of course, expecting the latter to do something is like expecting Walmart to pay employees $20 an hour with full benefits out of the kindness of its heart. The reasons for negligence are obvious. Among the negative side effects of bat doctoring is that the bats’ lives are drastically shortened. At the same time, written into every manufacturer’s return policy is a voiding of the warranty if the bat is found to be modified. So, imagine your company is being asked to prevent something that (1) requires larger quantities of your product to be sold; (2) requires fewer quantities of your product to be given away for free. What incentive do you really have to do anything?
“They say they want to address the problem, but they really don’t need to,” said Woodward. “They’re making money off of it. They’re not going to do a whole lot to curb that activity.”
While multiple inquiries to multiple bat manufacturers through multiple methods of communication went unreturned, it should be noted that Easton, at the very least, made it look as if they’ve tried to put the kibosh on this. In 2009, they released the Synergy Reveal, which had a fiberglass laminate finish that, supposedly, would “delaminate or turn white when the performance of the bat exceeds 98 mph association standards.” However, said the owner of OutlawedBats.com: “You can still shave those. If you did it wrong, that’s when the bat delaminated. Or if you did it ghetto-style without a lathe. But there’s always going to be a way.”
Due to the ineffectiveness of the aforementioned exit velocity thresholds, leagues have tried to attack the “hot bat” issue by changing other aspects of the game. They’ve made balls softer, so they don’t travel as quickly. They’ve instituted home run limits, and in some leagues - shudder the thought - a ball hit over the fence becomes an out; it also leads to more attempts at line drives, which puts everyone in danger. But those changes, no matter their effectiveness — and, truly, they’re not — are reactive, not proactive. More to the point, if you’re looking for evidence of some vast conspiracy between leagues and bat manufacturers, it’s hard to overlook the fact that the solution to this problem is so stupidly simple.
“The only way to stop juiced bats in a league or tournament is tourney-supplied bats,” said D.O. That, or go back to the deadened exit velocities of plain old wood.
But that’s not going to happen. The bats are out there, manufacturers are making oodles of money off of them, and then using some of that money to sponsor tournaments. Hot bats are easy to disguise, nearly impossible to detect, and enough players are using them that they’re easy to justify. And so, that’s kind of that. The only defense against their usage, truly, is a personal decision by individual players to put in the work rather than take a shortcut.
“I hit off a tee or my pitching machine every day. There’s a lot of work that goes into it,” said Woodward. “Go work on your game. It’s not a difficult game.”
And the ultimate prize for that work? At the end of the long season, you won’t wince when you see that cheap plastic trophy on the mantle next to your wedding photos, or the nearly unwearable piece of cloth that somewhat resembles a T-shirt at the bottom of the laundry basket. Rather, you can look fondly upon those ridiculous knick-knacks with the pride of knowing you risked moderate injury, and actually put in the work, to play and excel at this silly game that, for whatever reason, is incredibly easy to love.