When coach Tony Berkins calls batting practice, his Francis Howell High School baseball players take their last swings of the day with shiny new aluminum bats.
For most of the practice, though, the boys use wooden bats to keep the aluminum bats dent-free.
The reason: Aluminum bats range from $150 to $300 each — quadruple or more the cost of a $40 wooden bat.
The Francis Howell Vikings and other teams nationwide have to use-3 aluminum bats, according to a Jan. 1 mandate by the National Federation of State High School Associations. Prior to this year, high schools could use the lighter -5 aluminum bats.
That has sales of -3 aluminum bats soaring in the St. Louis area and across the nation.
It’s largely BYOB — buy your own bat — with parents or ball players picking up most of the jab for the pricey sticks. Few high schools can afford the cost.
“If I bought a bat for each of my players, I would blow my entire budget,” Perkins said. “I think part of the rule change was because manufacturers wanted to make more money.”
Whatever it takes
Clay Keeney, manager of Johnny Mac’s Sporting Goods in Sunset Hills, said he can’t keep the -3 bats in stock.
“Guys aren’t just buying the cheaper -3 bats,” he said.
“They are going for the higher-end (-3 bats), paying whatever it takes to improve their game.”
Baseball players are superstitious about equipment, said Kyle Reid, who coaches the team at Rockwood Summit High School. “They like to have their own top softball bats, each choosing his own brand. It’s kind of a status symbol.”
Mike McDonnell, manager of Gaffney’s Sporting Goods in Ellisville, said most of his customers are parents who are buying Louisville Slugger’s Omaha Gold, which retails for around $200, for their kids.
Jerry Detterman, manager of The Sports Authority on Watson Road in Crestwood said the price difference is based on the quality of aluminum alloy used. He said his store sells an average of 40 aluminum bats a week.
The -3 designation comes from the fact that the bat’s weight cannot be less than 3 ounces of its length in inches. For example, a 34-inch bat must weigh 31 ounces to be rated a -3.
Detterman, Keeney and McDonnell all said that Omaha Gold is probably the best-selling aluminum bat in St. Louis. The bright, banana-yellow bat was the official bat of the College. World Series last year.
Jeff Price, a 16-year-old second baseman for Kirkwood High School, paid a mere $164 for his Omaha Gold, which he ordered from a catalog. Before baseball practice started in, February, he and his dad researched aluminum bats on the Internet and checked them out in stores. Then his father helped finance the purchase.
“I like to swing the bat very hard, and the Omaha Gold doesn’t hurt my hands as much as ther bats I tried,” said Price, who’s been playing baseball since first grade and dreams of becoming a Major Leaguer.
Louisville Slugger and Easton Sports are the top two manufacturers in the aluminum bat market, said Jon Hodgins, Rawlings Sporting Goods vice president of marketing.
Fenton-based Rawlings is one of the largest makers of baseball equipment in the world. More than 60 percent of its revenue comes from sales of baseballs, bats and gloves.
However, Rawlings waited until after the NFHS rule change to enter the aluminum bat market. The company’s BB-750 model comes with a suggested retail price of $160.
“The high school association had been discussing changing the rules to require -3 bats for years,” Hodgins said. “We didn’t want to get into the market if there was no demand.”
Rawlings has forged sponsorship agreements with several college teams, including the University of Missouri-Columbia, to strengthen its presence in the aluminum bat market, he said.
MU coach Tim Jamieson said RawIings provides bats and other baseball equipment as part of the team’s deal. He declined to disclose the financial terms of the agreement.
All of Jamieson’s players use the BB-750.
“(MU) players had some feedback in Rawlings’ development of the bat,” Jamieson said. “But they don’t get to choose which company sponsors us, because they don’t understand the economics of the game.”