Late December 2010, the Little League banned composite bats, citing safety concerns. But for 11-year-old Jake Schutter, the move came seven months too late.
On the evening of May 5, Jake had been pitching for his local team in Mokena when he was hit on the right side of his head with a ball that came too fast off the batter's composite bat.
During the hours of uncertainty after his accident, Jake was diagnosed with a skull fracture and hearing loss, initially thought to be a result of the internal bleeding.
"After a month [of recovery], it was determined that he had suffered nerve damage," says Cheryl Schutter, Jake's mom. Jake can't hear from his right ear anymore.
Schutter says she and her husband Robert couldn't believe the speed of the ball off the bat - in this case, made of the alloy scandium. "Our son is an exceptional athlete and we were stunned that he couldn't get away in time," she says.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association banned composite bats in 2009, a rule that still stands and one the NCAA hopes to make even stricter. Last last year, the national Little League Baseball umbrella organization put a moratorium on the use of these bats, in a decision based on performance issues, according to Lance Van Auken, the league's vice president of communications. Composite bats are banned in the 2011 season unless they receive individual league clearance.
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign physicist Alan Nathan, who has a special interest in the physics of baseball, says the problem with composite bats is that of ethics.
Composite bats have a high "trampoline effect," meaning that the ball comes off faster because of the material used in the bat. When a ball hits a traditional wood bat, it gets compressed before taking off, and loses energy in the process, so it comes out more slowly. In a metal or composite bat, the bat compresses instead, so the ball retains most of its energy and flies off at a higher speed.
Additionally, the carbon fiber of composite bats actually becomes more flexible with each hit. Their ability to compress goes up, and the balls fly off faster and faster. Some end up at the heads of kids like Jake, and Nathan says stopgap measures weren't enough to help protect them.
"It becomes very difficult to regulate. This is the reason the NCAA and now the Little League have decided to put the moratorium," Nathan says. Rolling is the process of putting the barrel into rollers, which artificially makes the bat more flexible and boosts performance.
Martin Monero, safety officer for the Horner Park North-West Little League in Chicago, says the decision to ban is a smart one. "If an 11-year-old is playing against a 9-year-old who maybe doesn't play so much, the younger kid will get hurt," he says.
Aabha Rathee is a reporter for the Medill News Service.