Batter up!

A Consumper Product Safety Commission study shows that many Little League injuries could be prevented by using softer baseballs.

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This week, at baseball stadiums all across the United States, fans are filing into their seats to observe the divine American ritual that is Opening Day. Thousands of kids are watching as the first batter steps into the box to battle the first pitch. And later, in Little League parks everywhere, those same kids will step into the batters box and pray to God they dont get whacked in the face with the ball.

According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, more than 137,000 children ages 5 to 14 were admitted to the emergency room with baseball injuries in 1996. About 50 percent of youth league injuries are facial, and 85 percent of facial injuries are caused by the ball. But a new study shows one way to mitigate the damage — a softer baseball.

Dr. Paul Vinger of Tufts University and colleagues at the University of Virginia performed a study to examine “reduced injury factor” (RIF) balls, which are 20 percent softer than major league balls. Opponents of the RIF ball had claimed that the softer ball actually would increase the risk of injury by penetrating deeper into the eye socket. To test that theory, Vinger shot the two types of balls, at various speeds, into a model of the human eye socket. The RIF ball did penetrate deeper, but the penetration was offset by its reduced impact. The findings of the study are published in the April issue of the Archives of Ophthalmology.

“You can expect two kids per game to get hit,” Vinger says. “The softer ball causes less pain, less injury. A major league ball can fracture the skull at 50 miles per hour. The RIF ball has to be going much faster [to do the same damage].” Vingers team is recommending that all Little League teams adopt the softer ball.

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Right now, Little League officials condone–but dont require–use of the softer ball. “Its available to any local league that wants to use it,” says Mike Wright, volunteer coordinator for Little Leagues U.S. Western Region. Each local leagues board of directors determines which ball their league will use. Only about 10 percent of the 6 million youth league baseballs now in play are RIF models. “There are no plans at this time to mandate the use of softer baseballs in any level of Little League play,” said Lance Van Auken, director of publications and media relations at Little League Baseball international headquarters.

Some coaches argue that the softer ball would destroy the integrity of the game. To the purists, Vinger says, “We had semipro pitchers in our study who couldnt tell the difference [between the RIF and the harder ball]. If it looks the same and feels the same and plays the same, whats the difference?”

Very little, evidently — until you catch a wild pitch in the face. It seems the best advice for Little Leaguers, for now, is to hope for low fastballs.

Jon Bowen is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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