It’s unwritten baseball code: Don’t argue balls and strikes with the umpire.
Disagree over bats? That’s another story, one playing out on an almost nightly basis in Northern Virginia this high school season after Virginia adopted some of the strictest bat rules in the country.
Because of injury concerns, the National Federation of State High School Associations moved to more restrictive bat standards to cut down on shots that rocket off the larger “sweet spots” on the barrels of composite metal bats. The NCAA and Little League Baseball also have shifted from such barrels, which can become springier and more powerful over time.
The NFHS, the governing body of public high school sports, created a list of bats that will not be permitted this season, but later decided that 43 of those bats could be used for one more year. The Virginia High School League, citing safety and litigation concerns, is not permitting the use of any of those bats on the waiver list. And therein lies the confusion — as Maryland, the District and every other state but North Dakota are allowing the use of those bats on the waiver list.
The new guidelines in Virginia have caused befuddlement among coaches, umpires, players and parents as to the legality of the most fundamental piece of equipment in the game.
“The bat thing is the biggest, most confusing complication that I have seen in sports for the last 25 years,” said John Porter, commissioner of Mid Atlantic Collegiate Baseball Umpires, which works games for about 250 high schools in the area.
Other than North Dakota, which in recent years has switched to wood bats, Virginia is the only state in the country not permitting use of the bats on the NFHS waiver list, an NFHS spokesman said.
“The umpires, the coaches and the parents now have to be metallurgists,” Porter said. “They have to identify bats that sometimes are not well-marked and determine what they’re made of. You can’t tell whether it’s a metal or an alloy bat or whether it’s a composite bat.”
The new standards have put pressure on coaches and players to weed out illegal bats.
If a player is caught using one during a game, he is ejected for that game and the next two.
Virginia’s rules also charge umpires with rejecting certain bats during their pregame equipment inspections. However, it’s a different umpiring crew just about every game, so one umpire might allow a particular bat to be used and an umpire the next game might not, depending on his understanding and interpretation of the new guidelines.
“Umpires are as confused as we are,” said O’Connell Coach Rick Hart, whose team has played by the VHSL standards in some games outside the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference, which operates under its own rules. “I had one [umpire] tell me, ‘Nope, we were told no alloy composite bats.’ I said, ‘I don’t think that’s right.’ This is the home plate conference, and we’re arguing about bats.”
After Martin singled, Battlefield Coach Jay Burkhart, at the insistence of one of his players who believed Martin’s bat to be on the banned list, asked the home plate umpire for an inspection of it.
The umpire found the bat acceptable, and Martin used it for the rest of that game, and in several others.
In a recent game, however, during their pregame equipment check, another set of umpires determined that Martin’s bat, and another the Raiders had been using in games, did not meet the new standards. The Raiders were not allowed to use them that game.
“There’s still confusion and controversy over the use of legal or illegal,” Stuart Coach Randy Lightle said. “Because we really don’t know.”
Tom Dolan, an assistant director with the VHSL whose responsibilities include baseball rules, said he has received more than 1,000 phone calls, e-mails or texts related to bat questions, although the queries are subsiding as the season progresses.
“It would have probably been easier to follow everyone else,” said Dolan, a former baseball coach at New Kent and Lafayette high schools in the Williamsburg area. “But when the rule states one thing and the bat states something else, for us it cried potential liability issues for our member schools. I wouldn’t have changed anything we did, because it’s the right thing.”
Since last summer, the VHSL has regularly issued bulletins to schools about the new regulations, and umpires and at least one coach from each school were required to attend a preseason meeting that offered guidance about the bat changes.
Part of the confusion in Virginia stems from the fact that there is more to a bat than its name. The 43 bats on the banned list are variations of 11 models. For example, there are three versions of the Rawlings 5150 bat. Two are legal and one is not, Dolan said. Markings and numberings on bats also can be similar.
Just about any wood bat is legal, but few if any high school players use wood in games because those bats have a smaller sweet spot on their barrels than metal bats. The only composite bats that the VHSL is allowing are those that meet the BBCOR (Batted Ball Coefficient of Restitution) standards. Also permitted are aluminum bats, aluminum alloy bats and aluminum barrel bats with composite handles that are BESR (Ball Exit Speed Ratio) certified.
BBCOR bats, which act more like wood, are what NCAA baseball now uses and is the standard the NFHS will mandate next year for non-wood bats.
Elliot Hopkins, NFHS baseball rules committee liaison, said he did not know why Virginia decided to adopt the more restrictive standard and not the modified version of the original rule that 48 other states okayed. Individual state high school associations have the right to adopt more restrictive standards than what the NFHS allows.
“I hope their experiment works out and that it achieves the result they’re looking to get,” Hopkins said. “What that is I can’t answer. I don’t know what the end result was” supposed to be.