Baseball traditionalists often talk about the good old days. When ballplayers could handle the bat, put the ball in play and operate in a “station to station” manner. No doubt, it was a beautiful brand of ball, with bunts, stolen bases and gamesmanship running the show. This was more of a cohesive approach, utilizing strategy and teamwork, rather than waiting for one or two big moments to determine the outcome of a game.
So, what happened to this classic style of play? What killed small ball? Must have been those darned metal bats, right?
The first metal bats were made in the mid-1920, but we’re highly ineffective. Often times these original models would bend and dent when solid contact was made, therefore providing undesirable results, and a legitimate playing hazard.
Metal bats didn’t become a mainstay in baseball and softball until the 1970s, when they were mass produced by companies like Louisville Slugger and Easton. When the NCAA legalized the use of metal bats in 1974, it changed the game. Overnight, ballplayers could drive the ball with more force and hit the ball farther than ever. Over the course of the next 50 years, the metal bat continued to evolve with scientific capabilities. Raising the question, should aluminum bats be banned in baseball and softball?
It’s a legitimate inquiry for several reasons - Is the metal bat changing the way the game is being played? And more importantly, as athletes become stronger and science evolves over time - are metal bats becoming too dangerous?
Without a doubt the metal bat has changed the game for prep and collegiate players, because it enabled players of all shapes and sizes the ability to drive the ball. Why lay down a bunt and sacrifice a valuable out (you only get 27 of them, 21 in high school), when the legitimate possibility of extra bases exists?
So that’s it. Metal bats killed the Art of Small Ball, right? It’s not that simple, and quite frankly, small ball is not dead! Watch any given prep or collegiate game and you’re bound to witness some classic tactics; however, it is true that this style has diminished in Major League Baseball.
On occasion you’ll see small ball utilized in the National League (with a pitcher at the plate), during the late innings or during postseason play when runs are tough to come by. But the fact is, small ball began to wither away during the steroid era, and has continued to regress as players and coaches obsess over statistics like exit velocity and launch angle.
Is this a shame for baseball fans or a blessing? Perhaps a little bit of both. Die-hard baseball enthusiasts may yearn for “the way the game used to be played,” but ask yourself this question: Is the causal fan more apt to watch a game featuring the slugging 2019 New York Yankees or the slick fielding and speedy 1985 St. Louis Cardinals? The proof is in the pudding.
The game has changed and it doesn’t seem to be reverting to its old ways anytime soon, but metal bats aren’t the culprit. Major League Baseball’s powers that be have decided that the world has changed, and to make America’s Pastime relevant to the next generation, the game had to adjust as well. That doesn’t mean there isn’t room in today’s game for small ball. The little things will continue to win ball games in 2020 and beyond. Without a doubt, the torch has been passed and a new era of baseball has arrived. Unfortunately for baseball traditionalists, the hit-and-run and bunt base hit just don’t garner as many tweets or Instagram posts, as 500-foot home runs.