Just about every Saturday in May, June and July, at the Miracle League field in Dublin's Darree Field Park, the sounds of baseball are in the air - crowds cheering on a home run, players calling out each other's nicknames, and the bat cracking the ball.
When Little League International announced it had placed a moratorium on composite-barrel baseball bats earlier this year, many parents took a direct hit to the wallet. The bats, which are typically lighter than aluminum or wood bats, were popular with players at all levels because they can launch balls farther and faster than traditional bats. They also are more expensive, with some models costing several hundred dollars.
Little League officials cited performance issues as the reason for their decision - unlike standard metal bats, which tend to degrade over time, independent testing has shown that some composite bats may actually exceed the performance rating printed on them long after they are broken in.
Behind the scenes, though, there have been mounting safety concerns about increased ball speeds, especially in youth leagues where pitchers typically stand 10 to 15 feet closer to home plate than high school or college players.
"Injuries that come from batted balls tend to be more serious, and a higher percentage of injuries of that sort will result in surgery," said Dr. Steve Cuff, clinical assistant professor of pediatrics and sports medicine at Nationwide Children's Hospital and the Ohio State University College of Medicine.
Families may spend hundreds of dollars a year on sports gear, so when equipment requirements change, the investment may feel wasted. In the wake of the Little League ban, many parents have been left with $200 bats their children won't be able to use.
Brian Frazier, president of the Blendon Westerville Little League, said that most parents in his organization have been understanding.
"I rejected one bat a few games ago, but I haven't heard anybody complain, especially when they find out about the safety issues," Frazier said. "We've been very proactive, so when Little League International started talking about the dangers of these bats, we educated our umpires to make sure they check equipment before the games start."
Complicating matters is the fact that not all composite bats are banned. Little League has already released a list of exempted bats, which means coaches and umpires have to check the bats against the list. But to simplify things, the Blendon Westerville league simply banned all composite bats, regardless of brand or model.
There are also several other national and state youth baseball associations, and not all of their composite bat policies are consistent. The Ohio High School Athletic Association - following the lead of the National Federation of State High School Associations - will allow certain composite bats that have met third-party testing criteria. Other national sanctioning groups like the United States Specialty Sports Association, Nations Baseball, and the National Amateur Baseball Federation are either still developing policies, or have sent mixed signals.
That's left local leagues struggling to come up with a coherent stance on composite bats, especially since many players may participate in multiple leagues. The Central Ohio Youth Baseball League (COYBL), for instance, is allowing the bats this year, but is waiting for guidance from the national organizations before making a decision for 2012.
"We need to make sure we do the right thing from a safety perspective, but we also have to look at what the national sanctioning bodies are doing," said COYBL president Doug Hare. "We don't want the players to have to buy a different bat for every league or tournament they play in. We're trying to get something in parents' hands soon, and I know that some families have put off purchasing bats this year because of it."
Leagues also have worked to protect players from head injuries regardless of what kind of bat is being used. Girls' fast-pitch softball requires helmets with face guards for pitchers at most of the younger levels, and some leagues require protective chest pads for pitchers.
Frazier said his league has started using league-supplied batting helmets with face guards, which were donated by a program called "Play Hard, Don't Blink," which is run by the Ohio Ophthalmological Society.
Because of the increased awareness of the dangers of sustaining multiple concussions, football helmets may be the next piece of sports gear to face scrutiny. Congress is currently considering the Children's Sports Athletic Equipment Safety Act, which would ensure that new and reconditioned sports helmets for high school and younger players conform to stricter safety standards.
While protective equipment is important, Cuff emphasizes that parents and coaches should also focus on helping players avoid more common ailments like sprains, stress fractures, and overuse injuries.
"The best protective measure is to just have a certified athletic trainer on the sidelines or at games to help manage injuries and help with prevention," Cuff says. "Just making sure kids are maintaining proper flexibility, strength and fitness can go a long way toward preventing injuries."
With an increasing number of children playing sports year-round, and often focusing on one sport alone, repetitive-strain injuries and exposure to multiple concussions has become a serious issue for youth sports programs.
"Kids are specializing at younger ages and playing in more leagues, so their exposure to those injuries has increased," said Dr. Steve Cuff, a physician at Nationwide Children's Hospital.
Overuse of developing muscles and ligaments can lead to surgeries or even career-ending injuries. That's why parents and coaches alike have to make sure young athletes are training properly and taking care of injuries. At the Central Ohio Youth Baseball League, for instance, the league works to educate coaches and parents on how to help young pitchers take care of their arms. The league also enforces strict pitch counts.
"Our goal is to get them to make it through youth baseball and into high school and college," said the league's president Doug Hare. "If they wear their arm out at the youth level, they can't achieve those goals."