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WSU bat master sweetens spot for long shot

Wed., April 14, 2010, midnight

Lloyd Smith, shown in 2006, usually tests bats to ensure they meet the standards of the American Softball Association.  (File)
Lloyd Smith, shown in 2006, usually tests bats to ensure they meet the standards of the American Softball Association. (File)

Cheating isn’t usually what Lloyd Smith, the bat doctor of the Palouse, is all about. But Tuesday, he was looking forward to the chance to cheat his head off – with an official sanction.

Unfortunately, two other realities of baseball got in the way: an injury and a rainout.

Smith had juiced a bat for major leaguer Jimmy Rollins’ exhibition attempt to break the Guinness Book of Records mark for “longest batted ball” – a highly dubious record which Guinness sets as Babe Ruth’s 576-foot shot in 1921. For this record, as opposed to the one for a home run during a game, there are no limitations on equipment. So the sponsor of the exhibition – Red Bull, naturally – hired Smith to give Rollins’ bat a little extra oomph.

“This is not pure wood-bat baseball,” said Smith, head of WSU’s sports science lab, by phone from Philadelphia. “I’ve never been asked to do something like this. … Nobody’s come to me and said, ‘No more rules. Take away all the rules and see how far you can get.’ It’s been a lot of fun.”

The event was staged to coincide with the opening of baseball season, and Red Bull had arranged to close down Benjamin Franklin Parkway for the stunt. Smith, along with a student and a fellow sports scientist, physicist Alan Nathan of the University of Illinois, traveled to the City of Brotherly Love with their juiced bat and the two brands of baseball they’d found to be the liveliest. They also took along their scientific gear – including a “new toy” that uses Doppler radar to read pitch speed, bat speed, the spinning of the ball and the angle off the bat.

But Rollins, a shortstop for the Philadelphia Phillies, injured his calf Monday night in the season opener, and it rained Tuesday. The event was postponed, and organizers are looking to reschedule.

“Of course, it’s a disappointment,” Smith said. “We’ve been getting ready for this – all the deadlines and the rush.”

Juicing bats is the opposite of Smith’s typical work. His lab usually tests bats to ensure they meet the standards of the American Softball Association and tests balls for the NCAA – often making sure the bats and balls aren’t too lively. He also researches baseball and softball science, and co-authors papers such as “Effect of Ball Properties on the Ball-Bat Coefficient of Restitution.”

Doctoring bats and balls is a long-standing – if not exactly time-honored – tradition in the national pastime. Think corked bats. Pine tar. Sandpaper in the glove and nail files in the pocket.

The advantage for Smith was he didn’t have to avoid getting caught. What he did to Rollins’ bat is a common trick of softball players, although it’s against the rules. He softened the bat, made of composite carbon fiber, by running it through a pair of rollers. The extra compression from the softer sweet spot gives the ball a bigger ride – they call it “the trampoline effect.”

Here’s how Smith and a co-author described it in a scientific paper: “In the high-speed collision between a baseball and bat, most of the initial center-of-mass kinetic energy is converted into compressional energy in the ball, and about 75 percent of that energy is dissipated. Some of the energy is stored in vibrational modes of the bat, particularly in the so-called “hoop modes,” the most important of which is a radial deformation with a quadrupole azimuthal dependence …”

I think we all know what happens next: Ball goes far.

Non-scientifically: “The softer you make the barrel, the greater the trampoline effect,” Smith said.

Smith’s juiced bat has got around 15 percent more whammy than a wood bat, he said, and he’s planning to hang onto it until the record attempt is rescheduled. Whether Rollins stands a chance is an open question – Smith says he kind of doubts it – and the long-ball mark itself is the subject of a lot of controversy and second-guessing. But the show will definitely go on, he said, and he’ll have his bat ready when it does.

In the meantime, he took advantage of the chance to take in some Philly culture.

“We’re just sitting down to have a cheesesteak,” he said.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or by e-mail at shawnv@spokesman.com.


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