"Ever since the first caveman picked up the first cudgel, went to the front door and smacked the first nosy saber-toothed tiger in the snout, mankind has known the atavistic power and pleasure of the bat."
— Thomas Boswell, How Life Imitates the World Series
Slow pitch softball players in Humboldt County may not exactly be cavemen — though in some instances, that is a debatable point — but they do take pleasure in their bats. However, for those of you not keenly following all the latest developments in the softball subculture, not all players are swinging the same kind of bats these days. In fact, in Arcata something quite original is happening: For the first season ever, each team in the Mad River Softball Association is swinging wood bats only.
Let me explain.
For many years, going back until at least the 1970s, the only bats used in 12-inch slow pitch softball were aluminum bats. Composed of lightweight aluminum or metal, these softball bats came with no special design or enhancements. Little league, high school and college players have also been swinging aluminum bats for decades now. Of course, baseball purists have been howling about the sacrilege of it all — no more crack-of-the-bat sweet music from a ball meeting a wooden Louisville slugger. There's not a lot of poetry in a metallic "doink." But, the argument goes, it saves money in busted bats, the balls fly further and on and on.
There's a team in Arcata that I've been playing for since 1986 called the Hey Juan! Barnstormers, and we've been competing in the Arcata league every year (except for one season when we switched in a Eureka league). Arcata residents Paul Bressoud and my twin brother Paul DeMark founded the team in 1985, and we've enjoyed a good, long run, winning a few championships, usually fielding a competitive team and simply enjoying the game.
Then, somewhere in the mid-1990s, advances in bat technology changed everything and eventually forced us to change, too.
Those simple metal bats that cost $30-60 suddenly morphed into high-tech bats made of titanium, graphite composite fiber and even something called "liquid metal bats." These bats create a "trampoline effect," with the double or triple walls of titanium giving in and then springing the ball off the bat. And, just as amazing, these bats can cost anywhere from $200 to more than $500.
Suddenly softballs were rocketing off these high-tech bats, zooming through the infield before many of we 40- or 50-year-olds could react or even duck. Scores of balls flew over the fences. Ordinary single hitters suddenly began stomping the ball as if they were the reincarnation of Willie Horton or Harmon Killebrew. Legitimate power hitters became the King Kongs of softball. Scores sounded more like football games, 27-21 or more. In tournaments, the new bats forced rule changes: No more than five runs an inning, no more than three home runs per inning, etc. The new bats stretched the field out so much the game hardly resembled baseball any more.
Since our team was on the older side, even 10 years ago, we were playing much younger teams. Our outfielders were forced to back up so far that routine singles became doubles.
For a while we all enjoyed the new technology; it felt intoxicating to hit the ball with such velocity and 30 feet further than we used to hit it. It was softball's version of steroids, or maybe Viagra, though I don't want to imply any kind of dysfunction.
Then, after a couple of years, the new game felt boring and flatulent. Defense disappeared, sacrifice flies were laughed at and advancing the runner a joke. Swinging from the heels and watching the ball sail away became the new softball reality.
The manager of Hey Juan's Barnstormers, Paul Bressoud, says he knew things needed to change after playing the 1996 season in the Eureka leagues.
"Those fields were not big enough for the new bats and it became ridiculous," he says. "Plus, the lights weren't so great and none of us had ever seen a ball come at us so fast. It felt dangerous. We couldn't go on like that. I wanted to find a way to keep our team together."
Bressoud did a little research and found a league in the suburbs outside of Baltimore where they'd banned metal bats in favor of the classic wood bats.
While vacationing in Canada, one of our players, Mike Crowley, discovered a manufacturer of Canadian maple wood bats for under $100, and brought a few back. We experimented with them and the game slowed down: Defense mattered again, advancing the runner base by base became important and scores would be 7-5 or lower. Wood bats turned back the hands of time, like going from digital to analog. We liked the change.
In the winter of 1999, Bressoud approached the supervisor of the Mad River Softball Association, Steve Kozak, in the cereal section of Wildberries and asked if we could start a wood bat league. Kozak said, "If you'll be the commissioner, sure." Bressoud agreed and in the summer of 1999, six teams comprised the original Wood Bat League in Arcata, the second Wood Bat league in the U.S. In that summer, 19 metal bat teams played in the other division.
Now, in the summer of 2007, the Wood Bats have vanquished the Metal Bats. When the league began play in June, there were 34 wood bat teams and zero metal bat teams. As far as I can tell, Arcata may be the first city in the United States to boast an exclusively wood bat league.
Not every player thinks the wood bats are the be-all and end-all of softball in Humboldt County. Eureka and Fortuna still have exclusively metal bat leagues, and the over-50 and over-60 leagues use at least some of the new metal bats.
Barry Scarpellino, who runs the Home Plate Batting cages with his wife Kathy, has played softball for decades in Humboldt County. He currently plays on an over-50 team that uses metal bats, and he occasionally plays on a wood bat team. How does he compare the two experiences?
"Personally, I like to hit the ball a long way and score lots of runs," he says. "The metal bat leagues are all about hitting, not defense. If you just want to hit the ball forever, like me, metal's the only game. If you want defense, base running and that real baseball stuff, then play wood bat. Me, I like to smash it and watch it fly."
To that I say, to each his own bat.
Playwright/raconteur Jeff DeMark performs his autobiographic tales locally and around the U.S. He presents his latest show, They Ate Everything But Their Boots , on Sept. 15, at the Arcata Playhouse. He plays catcher and outfield for the Hey Juan! Barnstormers . The Mad River Softball Assoc. Wood Bat League is currently heading into playoffs.