Aluminum baseball bat’s safety on trial in Montana

HELENA. Mont. — Fighting off a Helena Senators’ fifth-inning rally, pitcher Brandon Patch checked the runner on first base. The 18-year-old Miles City Mavericks’ southpaw then went into his windup, delivering what looked sure to be another strike.

Instead, the Senators’ hitter connected squarely, smacking the baseball so hard that it was nearly impossible to follow — until it ricocheted off Patch’s head. The ball eventually fell behind first base after traveling, by some accounts, as high as 50 feet in the air.

Patch, pitching in what was to be one of his final games with his American Legion team, collapsed on the mound. He managed to speak briefly to his father and coaches, and to some of the teammates from the eastern Montana town of Miles City, who had rushed to help him. Minutes later, Patch went into convulsions as a horrified crowd watched on from the bleachers.

Within hours, Patch had died from head injuries suffered while playing the game he had loved since he’d been a small child.

“It was just so quick. Everything happened so fast,” Mavericks’ first baseman Kevin Roberts recalled more than six years later in a courtroom, where the bat’s manufacturer is being sued by Patch’s mother for allegedly producing an unreasonably dangerous product.

At issue in the trial that is expected to last at least until early next week is whether anyone could have known the danger that could come from using an aluminum baseball bat, and whether the manufacturer should be held liable for Patch’s death.

“There is absolutely no warning anywhere … that this bat can create a situation where a pitcher is defenseless,” said Joe White, the Patchs’ attorney.

Metal bats came into vogue in amateur sports in the 1970s. More recently, however, they have come under increased scrutiny and criticism as injuries from fast-moving balls hit by the lightweight bats have mounted.

What makes aluminum bats different from their wooden counterparts is that the weight is distributed more equally in the metal ones, making it easier to swing faster and harder. They’re also generally shaped to have larger sweet spots, the area that produces hard-hit balls.

In 2002, the U.S. Consumer Safety Product Commission ruled that there was inconclusive data to support a ban on metal bats in youth and high school baseball games. Its study found that from 1991 to 2001, there were 17 deaths nationwide due to batted balls. Of those, eight were from metal bats, two from wood and another seven were of unknown origin.

But Patch’s death in 2003 cast new light on the issue when his team refused to use metal bats or play American Legion games against those who did.

Since 2007, high school teams in North Dakota and New York City have also played only with wooden bats. States including Montana and Pennsylvania, home to the Little League World Series, have also considered state laws banning metal bats since Patch’s death, although none has passed.

Attorneys for Hillerich &Bradsby, manufacturers of the Louisville Slugger bat used to hit Patch’s fateful pitch, contend that accidents are bound to happen in baseball games and there’s nothing inherently unsafe about aluminum baseball bats.

“This bat did what was expected of it. There’s no showing it did anything different,” attorney Rob Sterup told Judge Kathy Seeley on Wednesday in an unsuccessful effort to get the case dismissed.

It will now be up to a jury to decide whether the company is at fault and whether to award the Patch family any damages. The complaint the Patch family filed did not seek a specified amount, although lawyers have said the case isn’t about money.

The Patch family has gone on a nationwide crusade to eliminate the use of aluminum bats and their name is well known in baseball circles.

In 2004, the family was highlighted in an ESPN program about the safety of metal bats in which they spoke about Brandon’s death. The family and a spokesman for Louisville Slugger declined to talk with The Associated Press while the trial is under way.

Mike May, spokesman for the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association’s Don’t Take My Bat Away Program, said while Patch’s death is tragic and he respects what mother Debbie Patch is trying to do, the exact same thing likely would have occurred if a wooden bat had been used when the ball hit the sweet spot.

“In the case of Brandon Patch, it was an accident that we’ll never be able to fully understand and hopefully we’ll never have to go through it again,” May said. “There’s nothing more than we’d like to do than see Brandon Patch play today.”

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