JOE BEL BRUNO Staff Reporter
Easton Co., a Van Nuys-based sporting goods manufacturer and the nation’s No. 1 producer of aluminum bats, stands to lose an estimated $50 million in sales over the next two years if the National Collegiate Athletic Association goes forward with its plan to institute heavier bat standards.
That represents half of the estimated $100 million cost such a change would carry for the entire bat-manufacturing industry and colleges nationwide.
The NCAA Baseball Rules Committee recently proposed instituting a heavier weight-to-length ratio for aluminum bats starting in 1998. As a result, colleges would be sent scrambling to purchase new bats catching many manufacturers unprepared.
“The bats we have on the market now would be useless, and they usually have a two-year life span,” said Jim Darby, senior vice president at Easton, which produces 1.5 million bats a year. “It’s ludicrous, and very bad for business.”
Rules Committee Secretary Bill Thurston said the change would be made for players’ safety and to improve the balance of college games, in which aluminum bats have been allowed since 1974.
Safety would be enhanced because heavier bats are harder to swing, leading to slower bat speeds. Heavier bats would also lead to shorter, more-balanced games by reducing the number of runs scored.
Thurston said the committee has been concered about many games with winning teams scoring more than 20 runs, and seven-inning games lasting more than four hours.
Under the proposed standard, a 33-inch bat would have to weigh at least 31 ounces, five ounces more than the current 28-ounce minimum weight for a bat of that length.
Bat-manufacturing executives say the change in standards would not give them enough time to design, produce and distribute the new, heavier bats. They are pushing to have the proposed standards phased in gradually.
“We want to be good corporate citizens, but how can we when at any moment we have to completely turn everything upside down,” Easton’s Darby said. “We’re preparing to go to a trade show in Atlanta next week, and we don’t know what to tell people.”
Sebastian DiCasoli, executive director of the Baseball and Softball Council of the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, said the NCAA’s proposed change has left the industry confused and concerned about the expected $100 million loss of inventory if existing bats are declared obsolete. Manufacturers also would be forced to retool their machinery, further adding to their costs.
“Kids and college programs have already invested in bats that will all of a sudden and for no good reason become no good,” DiCasoli said.
Thurston, who is baseball coach at Amherst University in Amherst, Mass., said it would cost each team at least $15,000 to make the changeover, discarding aluminum bats which have another year or two of useful life remaining.
Manufacturers, coaches and NCAA officials also speculated that high school teams, which usually adopt any NCAA changes, would soon follow suit.
Charles Levy, a spokesman for Chicago-based retail chain SportsMart, said the standards change could also hurt the retailer.
“Colleges typically buy right from the manufacturer, but we’ll get hit if the high schools make a switch. The old bats are useless,” he said.
The Rules Committee said an imbalance favoring batters over pitchers currently exists in college baseball. However, opponents of the proposed bat-standards change say some of that imbalance already has been corrected through competition.
They cite statistics that, since 1988, the overall college batting average, as well as the number of runs per game and home runs, have declined.
Thurston said the nine-member committee, which proposed the change last July, may formally adopt it in July of this year or sooner.
But, the committee also could decide to postpone the change until 1999 if NCAA-sponsored testing is not conclusive.