Cleburne County puts new twist on summer play dates
by Bran Strickland, Star sports editor
Jun 26, 2011 | 3620 views |  0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Pings did not ring out of Robert L. Morton baseball field on Saturday. Save for dugout chatter, cracks were the predominant sound.

That’s right. The cracks of the bats.

Foreign to high school competition for decades, lumber lumbered back into the limelight.

Using sanctioned summer play dates, Cleburne County coach Vaughn Lee did something he said he has wanted to do for a while: Have a wooden bat tournament.

“We’ve practiced with them before,” Lee said, “but the kids were excited to get to play a whole game with them.”

Wooden bat tournaments for athletes of high school age is nothing new — in fact two of Lee’s players were off somewhere else doing the same thing this weekend. But the wooden bat tournaments that are the chic things around the diamonds are typically reserved for summer and travel ball teams — not necessarily used by high school teams in their seven days of summer competition allowed by the Alabama High School Athletic Association.

But if response to Lee’s initial offering — a two-day tournament with a thrifty $100 entry fee — was any indication, Lee wasn’t alone in his desires.

“I just sent a text message and every coach said, ‘Yes,’” Lee said. “I got seven teams quick, and I was afraid I was going to get too many, so I ended up turning people down.”

Hiding from the midday June sun under a canopy just shy of the outfield wall, Lee said the response seemed positive, so much so he’s entertaining the idea of expanding next year’s tournament to another day and more teams.

You certainly weren’t hearing anything negative out of Handley coach Kevin Smith. He calls the wooden bats his kind of era of baseball.

“Old school,” said Smith, who is only 42. “It’s about pitching and defense. And running the bases. And bunting — and that’s a lost art; It still surprises me when I see guys on TV that can’t get a bunt down and move a runner over.”

While Lee did get around to having this tournament this summer, it’s a welcomed coincidence by many of the teams involved.

A year behind the college game, the Alabama High School Athletic Association is in transition as well. With steps taken to make the game safer, this past season, the AHSAA outlawed composite-barrel bats because the bats performed at a level deemed not meeting the safety standards.

And that’s not the only change coming.

For years, bats used in AHSAA competition had to be stamped with a BESR (Ball Exit Speed Ratio) number. With new discoveries made with respect to safety, BBCOR (Batted Ball Coefficient of Restitution) are deemed to be a better choice.

If all that’s confusing, Lee’s tournament, in a way, simplifies things.

With the cost of replacing bats as an issue, BBCOR bats basically mimic the performance of a wooden bat, and Lee and his fellow coaches are getting a jump on things — with the real things.

“Wooden bats take you back to the fundamentals of the game,” Smith said. “It’s a great teaching tool.

“With a metal bat, you could hit one off the handle and still get a base hit. With a wooden bat, you’re going to have to hit it on the sweet spot — and if you hit it off the handle, it’s going to hurt.”

While some hands may have hurt this weekend, at least Lee’s wallet didn’t.

To host the tournament, he said he got a deal for a case of bats, 12, for $25 each. After going through five on the first day, he went to get more just to ensure they’d have enough to complete the tournament, “and those weren’t $25 a piece,” Lee said.

But whatever the cost, the objective was completed — a weekend of teaching and fun, and some exciting baseball.

“If the wooden bats did one thing, it made for some closer games,” Lee said midday Saturday. “All except one have been one-run games.”

Bran Strickland is the sports editor for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3570 or follow him on Twitter @bran_strickland.

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Cleburne County puts new twist on summer play dates by Bran Strickland, Star sports editor

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