The road behind the outfield wall at Les Murakami Stadium has just become a whole lot safer.
A new rule enforced by the NCAA beginning at the start of the 2011 season requires all Division I baseball players to use new metal bats that operate much more like wood bats than the aluminum ones used in recent years.
The changes were made, in large part, to address safety issues, protecting pitchers susceptible to hard line drives that leave them little time to react.
How it affects the way the game is played has yet to be seen, but Hawaii coach Mike Trapasso believes it will be significant.
"It really is the biggest story in college baseball in the last 10 or 15 years," he said. "The coaches who I have talked to who have used the new bats say the days of hitting home runs in college baseball are over."
All bats must now pass a batted ball coefficient of resolution (BBCOR) test, which accounts for the inertia of the ball on impact with the bat.
The rule change has forced bat makers to come up with large supplies of the certified bats in a short time.
Most schools, including Hawaii, which uses Easton-made bats, have yet to receive them, even with fall practice under way.
Trapasso has made up for it by only allowing his players to use wood bats in practice.
"With the wood, we can hit them out every once in a while in here," senior Jeff Van Doornum said. "It’s definitely a lot tougher."
Van Doornum is one of only a couple of returnees who didn’t play in wood-bat leagues over the summer, choosing to rest both shoulders that have been injured throughout his UH career.
The majority of the team spent three months using wood bats, with mixed results. Junior Kolten Wong flourished with the different bat, earning MVP honors in the Cape Cod League, the premier summer league for college baseball players.
"I like it because it forces you to pay attention more," Wong said. "With metal bats you can get away with a lot of stuff, (whether it’s) pulling off balls or trying to turn on an outside pitch.
"With wooden bats you have to put the right swing on it and it makes you a better hitter."
The change is also designed to shorten the length of games in college baseball, especially on days of doubleheaders.
However, one of the main concerns echoed by many college coaches around the country is whether fans will find the game less exciting.
Hawaii’s attendance figures have gone up the last two seasons when the Rainbows home run total has also increased significantly.
Hawaii’s average home attendance of 3,190 this year was the most since 1996 and the first time it topped the 3,000 mark during Trapasso’s 10-year tenure.
UH’s 58 home runs in 2010 tied for the second most in school history, bested only by the 63 it hit in 2009.
Thirteen Rainbows have hit double-digit home runs in a season, but five of them have done it in the last two years. Kevin Macdonald hit 14 in 2009 and Van Doornum did the same last year, tying for the third most ever.
"College baseball exploded in popularity because of the offense," Trapasso said. "That’s going to change."
Even with its recent power surge, Hawaii is by no means a power-hitting team. Les Murakami Stadium, with its long dimensions and tough Kona winds swirling in from right field, is considered a pitcher’s park.
UH routinely ranks in the bottom half of the Western Athletic Conference in home runs, unlike teams such as New Mexico State and Louisiana Tech, which rely heavily on the long ball for the bulk of their offense.
"It’s going to work to our advantage because in order to win a game you’re going to have to play small ball and that’s always been our game," Wong said. "A lot of (other) teams have parks where you don’t have to play small ball and can just hit it out of the park. That might change."
Trapasso said he’s unsure when the team will receive a full amount of the new bats, but isn’t concerned on the lack of preparation time with them for the upcoming season.
"I’d rather have the bat in our hands when it’s the exact same bat that we’re going to be using," Trapasso said. "I don’t want to get a certain type and then have to get a new one and adjust to it.
"The main thing is they’re all swinging wood now and the only adjustment will be when they get the exact bat they’ll be using."
Hawaii opens the 2011 season at home on Feb. 18 against Oregon.