SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. -- The cramped quarters underneath Lamade Stadium don't usually have the name of famed White House correspondent Helen Thomas taped in jest to a front-row seat.
Then again, such Little League World Series news conferences don't usually have former presidential spokesmen sitting behind the same microphones where young baseball players squirm after a game.
Ari Fleischer, former press secretary to President Bush from 2001-03, used this stage yesterday to turn a baseball bat into a heavy political stick. Or, put another way, remove that stick from what his side considers to be heavy political hands.
"There's a very troubling trend sweeping state legislatures and city halls that threatens baseball," began Fleischer, referring to bans on metal bats passed or under consideration in Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey. "What really gets me, as somebody who spent a lifetime working with politicians, is when politicians substitute their judgment ... for those of the coaches, the leagues, the parents, the people who know the game best, love the game the most and protect the kids the most.
"If the politicians want to drive our children to lacrosse or to soccer or to video games, taking the fun out of the game is the best way to do it."
The reason Fleischer publicly takes such verbal swings: He represents the Don't Take My Bat Away Coalition, what he calls a "very grassroots group of parents, coaches and players" mostly from the same three Northeast states where legislation has been passed or introduced -- such as Rep. Mike Carroll, D-Wilkes Barre-Scranton, and his House Bill 1482 in early June -- to outlaw metal bats.
The coalition's Web site, www.dtmba.com, was registered by a Washington, D.C., lobbying firm (The Herald Group), whose principles include a couple of former Bush administration aides, one having worked for the same White House Communications office where Fleischer once did. Fleischer's services as a national spokesman and his company, Ari Fleischer Communications, have been retained by clients that include bat manufacturers, such as Louisville Slugger, and various sporting-good companies. He declined to further identify them or the costs, saying "that's their business, not mine." Efforts to secure lobbying reports from federal officials proved unsuccessful yesterday.
Little League president and CEO Steve Keener, seated next to Fleischer at a long-arranged news conference on a day when World Series games were washed out by daylong rain, intimated that the passage of Carroll's bill could prompt the event played in this central-state city since 1947 to move elsewhere.
"I would think a ban of the use of non-wood bats in the state of Pennsylvania would make it difficult to hold the World Series here," said Keener, whose tournament is a local tourism and ESPN August staple.
New Jersey legislators drafted a bill in response to injuries to a 13-year-old pitcher, Steven Domalewski, who still cannot walk or talk a year after being struck by a ball from a metal bat. The New York City Council overrode a veto by Mayor Michael Bloomberg to institute in 10 days a prohibition on metal bats in the city's high schools. North Dakota passed a similar rule days after two players in a regional tournament were smacked in the face by hits from metal bats, though Keener and Fleischer stressed that state's move was more broadly directed at weather concerns -- wood didn't hold up in the cold.
This wood-vs.-metal debate has percolated and then boiled at various times over the past three decades, with scientific evidence being employed by each side. Interestingly, Keener and Fleischer promote a pro-choice outlook on the matter. Little League players are permitted to play with wood bats, and leagues in such states as New Jersey and California voted to use only the natural substance -- though, Keener said, they soon after reverted to what they and the manufacturers label non-wood bats.
In most places, metal bats were an economic godsend because they didn't break and require replacing, like wooden bats. The lighter metal also was welcomed by small children who couldn't hoist or swing the heavy wood. Fleischer, who played Little League as a boy and today plays in a New York adult league that mandates wood bats, maintained that his average has dropped 100 points to nearly .200 from his Washington, D.C., adult league that used only metal bats. He said the wood-bat games get him home sooner to his wife and two children, but "I'd rather get a few more hits."
Keener and Fleischer said this isn't a financial issue. For one, the bat companies manufacture both varieties. And royalties from bat sales only amount to roughly $360,000, or 2 percent of Little League's $18 million operating budget. A switch to the more costly wood would inflate their coffers, Keener added.
"From a business standpoint, I would be on the side of prohibition," Keener continued. "But our reason for opposing it is, we're interested in as many kids playing the great game of baseball as possible. We believe if they were required to use the wood bats, which are a little harder to swing, a little harder to handle, they would have a much more difficult time performing ... getting the bat on the ball. We just don't want to see kids walk away ... because of a mandate on a piece of equipment that is unnecessary and unwarranted."
Little League and other youth-baseball organizations, such as PONY baseball headquartered in Washington, Pa., support metal bats and remain vigilant about precautions, Keener said. He cited Little League's removal of the on-deck circle, prohibition on head-first slides and implementation this year of a pitch count. Although the testing differs from the high school and college ranks to youth baseball on metal-bat standards, Keener said improvements to both bats and balls have lessened at least the rate of pitcher's injuries from batted balls in Little League: from a 1992 high of 145 to a low a few years ago of 23. Little League has endured eight fatalities from batted balls in its history, just two from metal bats -- in 1971 and 1973, a generation before current standards were put into place.
Fleischer referred to high school and college baseball studies that trumpeted how the game with metal bats remained among America's safest. He said a person had a better chance to drown in a bathtub or die falling off a ladder than to expire from being hit by a batted ball as happened one month ago in wood-bat Class AA to Tulsa Drillers first-base coach Mike Coolbaugh.
"This issue is fueled by anecdote, by emotion and by tragedy," said Fleischer, who added that he might not be able to attend the Sept. 27 Harrisburg hearing on Carroll's bill, but someone else from the coalition likely will be there. "If it continues to spread to other legislatures, little kids will get hurt by politicians."
Chuck Finder can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1724.