By Steve Kallas
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On June 28, 2006, Dillon Yeaman (then 15 years old) was pitching in a summer league game in Oklahoma in the Pure Prairie League, a league for kids of high school age. Yeaman was hit in the face by a line drive hit off a Louisville Slugger aluminum bat. He suffered severe facial injuries, including a broken eye socket and a broken nose, as well as severe facial injuries that required multiple surgeries. The doctors had to scrape away part of Dillon Yeaman's face and inserted two plates in his head. After a long recovery, Dillon Yeaman was actually able to come back and play baseball for his high school in 2007, having to literally wear a mask to protect his face from further injury.
Yeaman and his parents would eventually bring a lawsuit against Hillerich & Bradsby (better known as Louisville Slugger) which was removed to federal court in the Western District of Oklahoma. After years of litigation, on Friday, December 9, 2011, a federal court jury rendered a unanimous (7-0) verdict in favor of the Yeaman family and against Louisville Slugger. The total award of $951,000 included $80,000 for the cost of Dillon Yeaman's medical bills. Joe White, of the Oklahoma City firm of White and Weddle and Kelly George, of the Oklahoma City firm of Burch, George and Germany, represented the plaintiffs in this case.
WHAT WERE THE JURY'S FINDINGS?
Among other things, the jury found that the design of the bat, a Louisville Slugger "Exogrid," was "defective." Equally important, according to attorney Joe White, one of the attorneys for the Yeaman family, was a specific question given to the jury relating to assumption of the risk; that is, did Dillon Yeaman assume the risk of injury when he decided to play baseball that day in 2006? The jury answered that question in the negative. Had they said that Yeaman had assumed the risk, there could not have been a verdict for the plaintiffs. The jury also found that Louisville Slugger failed to warn about the dangers of this specific bat.
WHAT DOES THIS ALL MEAN IN THE BIG PICTURE?
Well, what it means is that the move back towards the use of wooden bats, or at least non-wood bats that really are closer to wood, is in full swing (no pun intended). That is, the three jury verdicts in the last decade or so (the Jeremy Brett verdict in Oklahoma, the Brandon Patch verdict in Montana (affirmed by the Montana Supreme Court) and this verdict last week, have been influences (admitted or not) upon the powers-that-be to tone down the power of these non-wood bats (Indeed, both Joe White and Kelly George have been part of the plaintiffs' teams in all three cases mentioned above).
The introduction of so-called BBCOR bats, which are closer to wood in terms of the ball coming off the bat (as opposed to the "weaponry" of BESR bats that can and does injure players), revolutionized college baseball in 2011. These same BBCOR bats will now be mandatory in high school baseball throughout the country in 2012.
Eventually, one would hope that all levels of baseball would use these toned-down bats (or "truer" bats, according to Ron Darling, who made that statement when he was interviewed earlier this year by this writer on WFAN radio on Rick Wolff's "The Sports Edge") to protect the players of all ages.
Nothing, however, would be better than a full return to wood bats, something that has now been used, by law, in New York City, after a brave effort by Jim Oddo to have the New York City legislature pass such a bill. The silence has been deafening from the critics of such a law. In fact, when you talk to some top players, once exposed to using wood, they prefer it to any non-wood bat, including the college (soon to be high school, as well) BBCOR bats. To be sure, severe injuries can occur with the use of wood bats, but, by now, even critics of the switch back to wood have to understand that, in reality, it is more likely that such injuries will occur with non-wood bats.
Here's hoping that the reality of a return to wood bats everywhere is in the not-too-distant future at every age level.
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