HARRISBURG - They've hired President Bush's former press secretary to coordinate their message.

They've recruited a former big-league all-star outfielder and manager as their official mouthpiece.

There has even been ominous talk about moving the hugely popular Little League World Series out of the state if need be.

When it comes to killing legislation that would outlaw metal bats in youth baseball and softball, a new but well-organized national coalition is playing political hardball.

And it has a road game today in Harrisburg to try to convince state lawmakers and the public that metal is every bit as safe as wood.

"The best defense is a good offense," said Ari Fleischer, Bush's press secretary from 2001-03. "Politicians are interfering with sports. They should have more important things to focus on."

Fleischer represents Don't Take My Bat Away, a group made up of bat manufacturers, sporting-goods companies, Little League's governing body, and others. It was created this year after New York City banned metal bats for high school use, and it brought in Fleischer to craft a public-relations campaign against proposed local and state legislation, including Trenton as well as Harrisburg.

In recent days, it has ramped up its effort in Pennsylvania in preparation for a hearing today before the House Children and Youth Committee, which is considering a bill to ban non-wood bats in organized baseball and softball from the high- school level on down.

At the heart of the debate is whether metal bats are more dangerous than their wooden counterparts.

Supporters of a ban insist that a baseball leaves a metal bat at a higher velocity than it leaves a wooden bat, and that in some cases a pitcher or an infielder doesn't have enough time to get out of the way.

Others, including top Little League officials, counter that there is no proof that wooden bats are safer, and that players should have a choice.

The anti-ban coalition announced this week that it had recruited Dusty Baker, who played and managed in the majors for 33 years, as its national chairman.

One of his first tasks was to fire off a letter to the sponsor of the bat bill, freshman State Rep. Mike Carroll.

"As a former Major League Baseball player and manager, and as the father of an 8-year-old son who uses a metal bat," Baker wrote, "I support players using the bat of their choice because I know wood and metal are safe. If they weren't, I wouldn't let my son use an aluminum bat."

Then came the Olympians.

Twelve gold-medal winners from the 1996, 2000 and 2004 U.S. women's softball teams wrote a letter to the committee arguing that "despite good intentions, this bill won't improve safety one bit."

When Don't Take My Bat Away e-mailed a survey about the legislation to Little League volunteers in Pennsylvania, 84 percent of the 3,281 respondents said they were against the bill.

Carroll, a Democrat from the Wilkes-Barre area, said he never expected his bill would face such a stacked lineup.

"It surprises me that all of this firepower is being lined up," he said.

Nonetheless, he welcomes the controversy because, he said, "at least people are talking about the issue now."

One unarguable point is that metal bats, typically aluminum, are lighter and offer a bigger sweet spot than their wood counterparts, therefore allowing younger, weaker players the ability to compete. Take them away and more players will flee the diamond for other sports, argued Steve Keener, president and chief executive officer of Little League International, who is scheduled to testify today.

Keener had intimated that if Carroll's bill became law, Little League could have to relocate the World Series, which has been held in the Lycoming County town of Williamsport since 1947.

"I would think a ban of the use of non-wood bats in the state of Pennsylvania would make it difficult to hold the World Series here," Keener said during a news conference at the tournament last month.

Carroll said he was hearing from scores of parents and coaches who support his effort, although he acknowledged that they didn't have the "same glitz" as the public-relations force amassed against his idea.

For some in Harrisburg, the issue has turned into more than they asked for.

House Minority Leader Sam Smith, a Republican from Punxsutawney, said yesterday that he had signed onto the bill as a cosponsor in large part because a wooden-bat maker was based in his Jefferson County district.

Smith said he was surprised to see the issue turn into a major political distraction.

"All these Legion guys are up in arms over it," he said, referring to participants in the American Legion's baseball program. "They don't want their world changed."

Gov. Rendell yesterday waded lightly into the controversy.

"From everything I know, and I'm a pretty good baseball fan, metal bats are more dangerous than wood bats, and anything we can do to decrease the danger to our children is good," he said at a news conference.

Today, three hours before the committee is to meet, the coalition plans to hold a news conference to assail the legislation. Fleischer will be there, looking, no doubt, comfortable before the microphones. Members of Harrisburg-area softball teams will be in the crowd in full uniform.

"It's a real tangible issue," said Fleischer, "that touches people in their backyards and on the playing field."