Monday, August 11, 2008

Major League Baseball’s Elephant on the Field

As a long-time Boston Red Sox fan who watches lots of games, I have been struck by the number of shattered bats made of maple that I have witnessed this year. It seems like one or two bats shatter in every game, and in today’s game between the Red Sox and the White Sox, a bat fragment seriously injured a fan in the stands.

I am also struck by the fact that the announcers hardly mention it when a bat comes apart, and pointedly keep away from discussing the number of occurrences that have become all too common. I decided today to Google the words, “broken maple bats”; I received 72,800 hits – that is, stories that mentioned this subject. Is this a problem that has become all too obvious, but which baseball’s executives are keeping under wraps? Here is just one such article:

Maple bats are shattering lives, and baseball needs to do something

At the breaking point

August 3, 2008 Sacramento Bee

Hearing the crack of Nate McLouth's bat, Pittsburgh Pirates hitting coach Don Long turned his head slightly to follow the ball at Dodger Stadium on April 15.

An instant later, Long was woozy and bloodied. The jagged end of McLouth's broken maple bat had tomahawked its way into the visitor's dugout and slashed Long on his left cheek and nose.

Ten days later, Susan Rhodes, a 50-year-old mother of two sitting four rows behind the same dugout, suffered a broken jaw when the barrel of Colorado Rockies star Todd Helton's maple bat struck her in the face.

Working in Kansas City, Mo., in late June, plate umpire Brian O'Nora was hit in the head by a piece of Royals catcher Miguel Olivo's broken maple bat, bled profusely and had to leave the game.

Sensing a trend? See the common denominator? There's a new blight on the face of the national pastime. No, not steroids or human growth hormone or any other performance-enhancing drug. Those are so 2007. Maple bats, rather, the way maple bats explode into shockingly sharp and possible lethal missiles, are the latest scourge of the grand old game.

"God, sometimes it's dangerous out there," said Los Angeles Angels third-base coach Dino Ebel. "Especially when there's a runner at second and I'm more toward home plate, I flinch (on contact). You just don't know."

"They are like a javelin coming at you, a spear," added Philadelphia Phillies first-base coach Davey Lopes. "Something needs to be addressed before something unfortunate happens."

It was high irony, then, that O'Nora was injured the night a player-management safety committee met in New York City to discuss the seemingly rising crisis with maple bats.

Really, all that came of that summit was that more testing of the wood was necessary, since maple breaks differently than ash, the second-leading source of bats. More often than not, ash merely splinters or cracks and falls harmlessly to the ground, while maple explodes spectacularly and flies off in different directions.

As such, from July 2 to 23, every bat broken, chipped, cracked or smashed in a game was collected for analysis. With all 30 teams following suit, 257 bats were busted in a combined 260 games, nearly one per game. Major League Baseball has also hired a wood research institute at the University of Wisconsin and a Harvard statistician to investigate.

"I think they're going to get rid of them, I really do," said A's designated hitter Frank Thomas, who has used ash exclusively throughout his 19-year Hall of Fame career. "I didn't like the way (maple) sounded; I see it exploding all the time. I grew up with ash and I've stayed with ash.

"There's got to be an alternative (to ash), but maple's just not it. Those things are exploding, and it's dangerous. It's a serious situation."

Banishment of maple by Commissioner Bud Selig would be problematic. Since bats are covered under the current collective bargaining agreement as "tools of the trade," players and owners would have to agree to a ban. Good luck on any expeditious negotiations between those two often-warring parties.

Plus, an immediate ban would leave baseball with a lumber shortage, as there are simply not enough ash bats in reserve to replace the maple bats used by an estimated 55 to 60 percent of major leaguers today.

Another possible fix would be to tweak the specifications for a bat – thicken the handles on a bat since thinner handles seem to expedite breakage, or to reduce its weight ratio, the length of the bat in inches minus its weight in ounces, from no more than 3 1/2 (for example, a 34-inch bat can weigh no less than 30 ounces).

Currently, a bat's barrel can be no more than 2 3/4 inches in diameter while its handle cannot be thinner than 16/19 of an inch in diameter.

Don't mess with the specs, pleaded A's third baseman Eric Chavez.

"I don't care which wood they use; I wouldn't mind if they go back to ash," said Chavez, referring to the more than 20 companies licensed by MLB to make bats. "I use maple because that's just what all the bat companies have in stock … and what they can get me the fastest, and that's maple."

Players have generally accepted the on-field risks associated with flying bats. It's merely a part of the game now, they say.

However, they do fear for the safety of others.

"My biggest concern is a fan, if a bat flew in the stands and hurt a fan who's not really paying attention," said Chicago Cubs first baseman Derrek Lee, a former El Camino High School star. "You see these bats flying all over the place nowadays. I don't know what the difference is this year (because) it's more ridiculous."

Rhodes, the fan injured at Dodger Stadium, reportedly had her jaw wired shut for three weeks, experienced headaches and memory loss and had a titanium plate and four screws inserted.

Some observers have suggested extending protective netting down the baselines to the ends of the dugouts, much like the NHL put up a see-through barricade to protect fans after a 13-year-old girl was killed when struck by a stray puck in 2002.

"What I don't get is why it wasn't a problem seven years ago, but now it's a problem," Chavez wondered. "I don't understand – if maple's maple, why are they breaking so much now?"

Sam Holman, an Ottawa carpenter and founder of Original Maple Bat Corporation in Canada, has theorized that cheaper wood is being used to satiate a hungry market, and that many bat companies are simply cutting corners to meet the demand.

All of which begs the question – if fans, players and management alike all see the inherent danger of the way maple bats are breaking, then what is their appeal?
"The biggest difference is it doesn't splinter," Lee said.

An ash bat, which has noticeable grain and texture, also flakes or peels with use, like an onion, weakening the wood. A maple bat is smooth and its grain barely visible. That characteristic, though, can give a false sense of pristine security because a vein on the inside might have already been broken and its user has no idea … until its spectacularly explosive demise.

Plus, while maple bats are more expensive – maple runs about $65, ash about $45 – they last longer.

On July 1, Lee was still using the same maple bat for batting practice he was swinging on Day 1 of spring training.

Compared to ash, maple wood is a more dense and hard. Being lighter also translates into greater bat speed, which could mean balls traveling further, though studies have refuted such thoughts.

So who's to blame for the preponderance of maple in the majors? Who made maple the madness that saw independent minor league pitcher John Odom traded in May by the Calgary Vipers to the Laredo Broncos for 10 maple bats?

It seems baseball has something else for which to blame Barry Bonds, who swung maple to set both the season (73 in 2001) and career home run (762 set in 2007) records while with the Giants.

"When Barry started using maple," Chavez said, "that pretty much was the end of ash."

Bonds, however, didn't just wake up one day, chop down the nearest maple tree and whittle out his personal Wonderboy (according to Giants clubhouse manager Mike Murphy, Bonds would go through only "about five bats a season when he was going good.") Rather, it was Joe Carter, who had an otherwise innocuous 41-game San Francisco stint in 1998, who turned Bonds onto the wood.

Carter, who came to the Giants from the Baltimore Orioles after a lengthy stay with the Toronto Blue Jays, brought his maple Sam Bats, named after Holman.

Holman favors increasing the minimum price of maple bats to $200 apiece to prod companies to not cut corners in production, essentially leveling the competition.
Meanwhile, Murphy said 50 percent of the Giants use maple, with veterans such as Omar Vizquel and Aaron Rowand eschewing it for ash.

Oakland clubhouse manager Steve Vucinich said 65 percent of the A's are imbibing in maple, though they are starting to be weaned off the wood. Bats in the future, Vucinich said, will be made of such exotic lumber as beachwood and bamboo.

Until then, players, coaches and fans remain in harm's way.

Long, the Pirates coach, had no chance to react as the bat barreled in on him in milliseconds, and he suffered nerve damage and took 10 stitches.

Merely a part of the game?

Giants rookie Emmanuel Burriss had his welcome-to-The-More-Dangerous-Show moment at San Diego's Petco Park on April 24, the night before Rhodes was hit in L.A. The Padres' Tadahito Iguchi smacked a grounder to Burris at shortstop, and the barrel of Iguchi's bat followed suit, only twirling its way to Burris.

"It's just hovering over the ball," said Burriss, a scant five days into his big league career. "He got a base hit out of it because there was no shot I was going to get that ball (without being hit by the bat). … "

Burris laughed uneasily, perhaps remembering the second-inning misadventure could have been huge in a 1-0 game won by the Giants.

"You've got to get out of the way of the bat, and then look for the ball, which probably is backwards," he said. "It shouldn't be that way.

"It's crazy, dude."

The wonderful thing about baseball is that in this ever-changing world of disasters and crises and disintegrating neighborhoods , baseball mostly remains the same and manages to focus us intently for a few hours on something that really matters not at all. We are still arguing about the role of the designated hitter, and keeping statistics on every possible series of occurrences. Now we can keep track of shattered maple bats until the obvious problem is corrected.


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At 6:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What do you suggest, aluminum bats?

At 7:50 PM, Blogger RussWilcox said...

I played for many years using ash bats, and we never had this peoblem.

At 7:01 PM, Blogger Christopher Logan said...

Why don't they use them, does the ball not travel as far?


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