Posted at 9:53 AM on June 4, 2007
by Steve Rudolph
The University of Minnesota baseball team’s season ended Sunday in San Diego after an 11-6 loss to Fresno State in NCAA regional play.
The 41 victories the Gophers recorded were the most since 1999 and Saturday night’s thrilling upset of No. 4 ranked San Diego has to be among the program’s biggest wins in nearly two decades.
However, that’s not what I’ll remember about this regional. Instead the San Diego regional reminded me that college baseball needs to bite the financial bullet and switch to wood bats before someone gets killed.
Baseball fans in San Diego witnessed two frightening moments involving pitchers being struck by batted balls. The first involved Gopher starter Tom Buske who was drilled in the leg just above the knee on a come-backer Friday night. The ball struck Buske’s leg with such force that it ricocheted over the head of first basemen Brian Jost towards the bullpen. Had it the ball hit bone instead of muscle, Buske likely would have broken his leg or shattered his kneecap.
Last night, Fresno State’s Tanner Scheppers was not as fortunate as Buske. A line drive by the Gophers’ Kyle Baran struck Scheppers just above the eye. The replays were apparently so jarring that ESPNU elected not to air them. After lying motionless for nearly 10 minutes, Scheppers was rushed to the hospital. Luckily, he was conscious as he left the field.
The scene was all too reminiscent of the last NCAA regional played at Siebert Field in 2000. Two pitchers in that regional, Nebraska’s ace Shane Komine and Twins reliever Pat Neshek, who was pitching for Butler at the time, both had their jaws broken by balls hit off aluminum bats.
As disturbing as those two incidents were, the scene would get even worse during a game at the Metrodome the following March. Gopher pitcher Ben Birk had his face shattered by a line shot from a Miami batter during the 2001 Hormel Classic. A radar gun behind the plate measured the speed of the batted ball at nearly 100 mph before it struck Birk around the nose and eye.
I understand there are costs associated with switching from aluminum to wood bats. And yes, college baseball is not a revenue sport. Those aren’t acceptable arguments when the safety of the athletes in involved. I applaud the move of New York City officials who recently banned the use of aluminum bats in high school games.
When is the last time a major league pitcher was hit in the face with a batted ball? I can’t think of one recently and major league batters are far more powerful than college hitters.
But that’s not the issue. The problem is the speed at which a ball can fly off an aluminum bat can exceed the reaction time of even the best fielding pitcher. Wooden bats don't produce the same results no matter how strong the batter is.
To prevent more pitchers from suffering the fate of Tanner Scheppers, Tom Buske, Shane Komine, Pat Neshek and Ben Birk the NCAA needs to recycle those aluminum bats and play the game the way it was made to be played – with wood bats!