Playing youth baseball is rite of passage for many young men. Later in life, so is buying a car.
Are these two life events related? At least one local baseball coach thinks so.
"Baseball is becoming an expensive sport," said Stow-Munroe Falls High School baseball coach Aaron DeBord. "The prices for bats have been out of control for six to eight years. The gloves are the same way. You can’t go to Dick’s [Sporting Goods] without spending $300 on a new bat."
"You definitely worry about it," he added. "There are affordable options. It’s the same thing with buying a car."
If $300 for a baseball bat sounds extravagant, it’s become a norm. A visit to Dick’s Sporting Goods in Cuyahoga Falls revealed bats that ranged from $60 to $350. DicksSportingGoods.com had Little League bats available in a similar price range.
Prices for high-school level bats averaged even higher, including some models as high as $450.
At Play it Again Sports in Cuyahoga Falls, the range was similar for new bats, although Play It Again also has many used bats available as it accepts trade-ins for equipment.
Matt Trayer, manager at Play It Again, says that while bat costs are rising, they need not be prohibitive for all parents.
"For the vast majority of 10-year-olds, it's stupid to hand them a $300 bat," Trayer said. "Come talk to me about a $40 bat.
"We recommend for the recreation leagues to play with lower-end bats," he added. "If you’re playing for fun, that’s all you need. The higher end bats are for competitive play. Travel ball is where you're playing competitively."
Why is there such a disparity in prices? Trayer said the difference is materials. Less expensive bats tend to have aluminum cores, while the higher-end bats use composite materials like carbon fiber to control the impact and make the bat stronger, yet lighter.
"It's big business," Trayer said, noting "Ohio is a very competitive state" for youth baseball. He also noted baseball equipment purchases are "far and away" the biggest portion of Play It Again’s business.
One reason for higher costs is different youth baseball organizations have their own bat certification processes.
USA Baseball, one of the sports’ amateur governing bodies, began enforcing its "USABat" standard on Jan. 1, which it introduced to make composite and metal bats conform to "wood-like" performance.
"It is a safety issue. They may not make that argument, but it is," Trayer said.
Little League is one the nationwide leagues following USA Baseball’s standards, which means, locally, that Tallmadge Little League and Cuyahoga Falls Little League players have had to make the shift.
Tom Headrick, president of Tallmadge Little League, said the new bats had a dramatic impact.
"Essentially, what the USABat has done is deaden the bat," said Headrick. "The older bats that are not the USABats have a lot more pop. We just ended our regular season. We had a significant drop in home runs in our Major league. I think we had five home runs as opposed to 20 last year."
So why not just use wooden bats?
"They break and they're heavier," Trayer said. "The reality is with alloys and composites, you can make them much lighter and last longer. For youth baseball, they just made a wood bat made of poplar. But it’s not a strong wood. While [bats] are going more ‘wood-like,’ they aren't there yet.
"The lifetime of a bat is usually going to be longer than that of a player," he added. "The reality is, most kids will grow out of a bat within a few years."
Local league presidents concerned about pricing
While Headrick believes the new bats will have good effect long-term on the youth game, he noted the switch has caused issues.
"From a president’s perspective, I believe it’s caused a lot of undue stress on the parents," Headrick said. "You don’t want to spend $350 on a bat if they change the rules ever year. It’s caused people to be more selective in what they do."
Headrick notes his own family has been affected by the USABat standards. This spring, USA Baseball decided to decertify the Easton Ghost X 30/20 bat from its approved bats list — which happened to be the bat Headrick’s son was using.
"We have $379 out for the bat which was recalled," Headrick said. "[Easton] sent a $500 gift certificate, but you don’t know if that’s for a bat you want."
Another issue is that many youth baseball leagues do not follow the USA Baseball standards.
"Not in Ohio. There's three major rule sets still here," Trayers said. "From talking to other people, the [eastern United States] is fairly simple: It’s all USA Baseball. In Ohio, we have USA baseball, USSSA [United States Specialty Sports Association] and we have remnants of Hot Stove as well."
Stow Youth Baseball is one of the leagues that follows Hot Stove’s equipment rules. While they haven’t been hit by USA Baseball’s changes, bat prices are a concern, according to SYB vice president of baseball operations George Ridings.
"It’s definitely a concern," Ridings said. "What I’ve seen is that kids and parents will buy their own bats. It increases a cost for the kids."
Ridings said, at the recreation league level, SYB tries to provide a few bats per each team to help defray the cost of bat purchases.
"We’re replacing 5 to 10 bats a year and we’re kind of budgeted for it," Ridings said. "If Hot Stove came to us and said they were switching to USA Bats, it would be a big deal."
Twinsburg Baseball League president Rich Swerbinsky said "without a doubt" prices were a concern. He said TBL does not follow the national standards in part because of pricing.
"We’ve always had bat standards, but we are not affiliated with any of those different sanctioning bodies," Swerbinsky said. "That’s why we didn’t make the change to the USA Baseball bats. They are expensive. The lower priced bats, it was just very hard to find them earlier this year. We didn’t want to impose that financial burden on our families."
Another answer for the situation might be organizations offering used equipment to other leagues. During his time at Akron Firestone High School, DeBord noted he often received donated equipment from St. Vincent-St. Mary because of their similar colors.
Despite this generosity, DeBord notes high equipment prices could have a chilling effect on baseball being played in lower income areas.
"In some of the inner cities, I worry about the effect this is going to have on baseball," DeBord said. "In my area, it’s not going to affect us too much, but I know there are areas it will."
Trayer noted he expected more used —and less expensive — bats with USA Baseball certification to become available after this year, once more parents choose to trade in their bats when their sons outgrow them.
The league presidents noted that higher bat prices will probably be felt most in travel baseball.
"The heart and soul of the Twinsburg Baseball League is our recreation baseball league," Swerbinsky said. "We have one travel team for each age group. Even our travel teams aren’t impacted by this decision this year, but [could be] in the future. It’s not as if the good non-USA Baseball bats are cheap."
"There’s programs out there that charge anything from $1,000 to $1,500 for travel baseball," Ridings said. "Sometimes I wonder why it costs so much to play baseball. Our travel teams are more community based. If you pull the best kids from every community, of course you’re going to attract better kids.
"Parents seem to be migrating towards travel teams," Ridings added. "I don’t see a lot of Cleveland Indians scouts at those games."
Headrick agrees that equipment prices could have a chilling effect on youth baseball.
"It had a direct impact. Not to say that kids weren’t signing up [for Little League], but kids didn’t have their own bats like in years past," Headrick said. "If you’re deep into baseball, you’re swinging the same bat from January on.
"We made a decision as a league to purchase bats and have them available for kids who didn’t have their own," he added. "I think they’re going to be quite trying for some leagues."
Reporter Michael Leonard can be reached at 330-541-9442, firstname.lastname@example.org or @MLeonard_RPC