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Technology, rules, and the nature of the game

Technological advances in equipment have rendered grand old golf courses obsolete for professional tournaments. Many have adapted by lengthening and narrowing fairways, "Tigerproofing" themselves in an attempt to keep scores from plummeting. There is serious discussion of more restrictive regulation of the golf ball as well.

In softball, technological advance has done much the same, rendering local ballfields obsolete, as described in today's WSJ:

By the beginning of this decade... softball bats had become too powerful -- often resulting in longer games with inning after inning of home runs. Last year, the ASA [Amateur Softball Association of America] responded by telling makers to limit how fast a regulation softball could fly off their bats in a lab test -- its "98 mph rule." After years of better performance, bats were effectively dampened.

Until, that is, the bat doctors went to work:

"It's amazing the lengths teams will go to win an $18 trophy," says Joe Morice, a player and manager of Cassie's Italian, a men's softball team in Fairfax, Va.

Bat doctors have devised various procedures to give players that age-old satisfaction of launching a ball over the outfield fence. One method, called "end loading," involves removing the cap on the end of the barrel and adding weight, shifting the bat's balance to give it more momentum when swung. Bat doctors may also use a lathe to shave the inside of a bat's barrel to make it springier, in effect giving the ball an extra boost on contact. Then there's the painting routine -- taking a high-performance bat that isn't allowed for league play and disguising it as a regulation model.

Old sports and new technologies can often be in conflict. One way of addressing the conflict is to go the route of the PGA, by making the courses excruciatingly long and tough. Lengthening amateur ballparks or municipal golf courses is not likely an economic response. So golfers get to enjoy the prospect of more birdies, which at the municipal level is not much of a problem. Longer softball games, with balls routinely flying over the fence, may be more threatening to the nature of the game. Hence the new bat regulations.

But turning back the clock by regulating technology is not the simplest policy to implement or enforce. As the WSJ story implies, development of technology and responses to it may lead to unrecognizably different forms of softball, as different associations adopt different rules. Much in the way that different rules generated forms of auto racing that have little in common, apart from the vehicle having 4 wheels and an engine. Football's struggle with the rulebook led to a similar outcome, with the American form (developed in isolation) evolving into something completely different from either Rugby or Soccer.