Let's Get Loaded
Baseball bats and life.
I’ve written about kid baseball before, but last week I had a new experience: I overheard a couple of baseball dads discussing a company called Home Run Derby Bats.
They were talking about the various bats they have purchased for their 16-year-old kids from this company that their kids used at “showcase” tournaments.
But before I tell you this story, I want to set the table.
First: I was watching their kids play. They were very nice ballplayers and probably great human beings. They are probably on the high-end of their high school varsity team and will probably play at the Division III level in college. They were not Division I or pro prospects. Not even close. But who cares? Some day those kids will be 30 years old and have jobs and families and baseball will have been an important part of forming their character and understanding of life.
Second: Youth baseball has standards for bat construction at each level. In Little League, bats have to be certified by USA Baseball; by high school the bats have to be BBCOR certified. Because all of the kid bats are either aluminum or composite, these certifications are given to keep the power of the bats below certain threshold levels so as to keep the players safe.
Why? Because you don’t want a ball coming back at a 14-year-old pitcher at 110 mph.
As you progress through baseball, each level of bat becomes a little more “live,” and capable of hitting the ball harder and faster. What youth players look for in a bat is, primarily, the bat that has gotten closest to the certification line that season without going over it.1
Anyway, these dads had found a company in Florida that “rolls” and “shaves” bats which have been previously certified to a given standard. The mechanics of these processes are unimportant. All you need to know is that this business takes bats which have been certified and then mods them out so that they are much, much more live.
The idea being that if the same kid swinging two identical bats—say, a DeMarini Zen—except that one of them has been rolled and shaved, well, the modified bat is going to hit the ball farther. Like a lot farther. Another 80 feet or so.
Which is the difference between a routine fly out and a monster home run.
When you go the website for Home Run Derby Bats (I’m not going to link to it and help their SEO score) you find that there are various “levels” of modification you can purchase, with each step up making the bat more powerful.
There are some practical downsides to rolling and shaving a bat. For starters, it’s expensive. But also, the more you modify a bat, the less durable it is. At the highest level of modification, the company tells clients to expect the bat to only last for a weekend—the idea being that you buy one of these things for a single showcase tournament to make your kid look like Pete Alonso for a dozen plate appearances.
Another downside, which the company discusses delicately, is whether or not umpires and outside observers will be able to tell that your kid is using a loaded bat.
Here is a section from the company’s FAQ:
Outside of end caps blowing off or visual clues of tampering, one of the leading concerns customers have of owning a shaved bat is "will the bat sound audibly different than a stock bat?" The answer is yes and no. There is a huge misconception any shaved bat sounds audibly different than a stock bat. I have been in this business nearly 10 years, have shaved tens of thousands of bats in my day, have played slowpitch softball for almost 20 years and can tell you without any shadow of a doubt, a shaved bat can sound stock.
Good to know, I guess?
There are a lot of things I hate about this story and cheating is the least of them.
You shouldn’t cheat, obviously. And while cheating goes back to the beginning of baseball, it’s against the code. Cheaters are generally reviled by their peers at the professional level.
But the psychology of loaded bats is much worse that just the cheating aspect. The idea of using a loaded bat at the kid level isn’t to win games—no one cares about the outcomes of a game at a showcase tournament. No, the point of the loaded bat is to temporarily make a kid look like a better player than he is.
What’s the point of that? To get a college scholarship? To put him on the radar of “scouts”?
That doesn’t make any sense. Because at some point the kid will have to play with a stock bat and he’ll be what he is.
The loaded bat does him absolutely no favors. It’s like cheating on the SATs to get into MIT. Sure, maybe you can fool a gatekeeper into letting you into a level you don’t belong at. But then what? You have to compete with the real geniuses, day in and day out. And that’s not going to go great for you.
Same for baseball.
If you help a kid trick their way into a level at which the don’t naturally belong, all you’re doing is setting them up for failure.
Here’s the thing about baseball: Most of the time, if you are good enough to play at the professional level, it’s obvious to everyone from a pretty early age.
Have you ever heard of Alec Bettinger? He’s a pitcher in the Brewers organization who owns the crappy distinction of being the only player in MLB history to give up two grand slams in his first major league start. He was a great college pitcher (UVA) who has had a rocky path through the minors. He’s currently with Milwaukee’ AAA affiliate.
Anyway, I know Alec a little bit. He’s an awesome guy. Just a tremendous kid. And I’ve watched him work out. When you see Alec throw a baseball up close it is insane. Inhuman. Otherworldly.
It is immediately apparent that he is a professional-caliber pitcher.
I also know Alec’s high school coach and he once told me that when Alec came up as a 15 year old, it was already obvious that he was at a different level than anyone else the coach had ever seen.2
Point being that Alec isn’t Sandy Koufax—but he didn’t need a loaded bat or Spider Tack or any other trickery. You could just tell.
Just about all of the time, the guys who are good enough to be pros are obviously good enough to be pros.
Which brings me to the real sadness about Home Run Derby Bats.
The point of kid baseball isn’t to become a professional. That will either happen or it won’t. Baseball makes those decisions for you. And you can’t negotiate with it or trick it.
No, the point of kid baseball is to use the game to learn and grow up to be a good person with a deeper understanding about life. To learn to appreciate the exquisite tension between being and becoming.
Don’t rob your kid of that journey by getting him a loaded bat.
2. The Two Americas
This Ron Brownstein piece gets at something that’s been gnawing at me:
The red states are moving social policy sharply to the right within their borders on issues from abortion to LGBTQ rights and classroom censorship, while simultaneously working to hobble the ability of either the federal government or their own largest metro areas to set a different course.
To a degree unimaginable even a decade ago, this broad offensive increasingly looks like an effort to define a nation within a nation -- one operating with a set of rules and policies that diverge from the rest of America more than in almost any previous era.
I wrote about this in May and people got very mad at me, but it seems undeniably true: