Batmakers: Don't blame us
In the parlance of batmakers, it's not the species, it's what you do with the species. It's not because big-league baseball bats are made out of maple that they're seemingly shattering and flying all over the place, into little (and sometimes not-so-little) wooden projectiles that can cut and maim and, maybe someday if somebody doesn't do something about it soon, actually kill.
Instead, say some batmakers, it's because of other factors, including how the maple is harvested and produced and used and, many times, misused. Or, paraphrasing one of the greatest batwielders of all time, Tony Gwynn: It's not the arrow. It's all those guys with the arrow.
Baseball's latest hand-wringing and soul-searching over the alleged dangers of maple bats -- this has been going on for years now -- takes an important step toward some sort of conclusion when representatives of Major League Baseball, its clubs and its players' union meet in New York next week to discuss what can and what should be done about the offending sticks. The options are many, and mostly unclear, at this point. But already some have called for a complete ban of maple bats until something can be figured out.
It's a seemingly failsafe choice: Take away the maple, at least for now, and there can be no maple projectiles. But those who make maple bats -- not to mention a great percentage of the more than half of major league players who swear by them -- insist that's not the best way to go.
"You can't single out maple," says Jim Anderson, the vice president and director of sales for MaxBat, Inc., a Minnesota company that produces maple bats for more than 150 major leaguers, including the reigning National League MVP, the Phillies' Jimmy Rollins. "This whole thing is very frustrating. We put a lot of research into our models. We put out a really good product."
The whole fear of maple missiles is not a new one. Maple bats first became popular in the late '90s, gaining greater acceptance in the early part of this decade. When Barry Bonds used one to smack a record 73 home runs in 2001, more and more players chucked their ash models for maple ones. It wasn't long until those around the game began to notice the maple bats' seeming tendency to shatter into pieces instead of crack.
Anderson points out several instances of pieces of ash bats ripping into unsuspecting bystanders, too, including the famed 1976 incident when Dodgers catcher Steve Yeager was struck in the throat with pieces of a bat while standing in the on-deck circle. Still, ash is getting a free pass these days because of the sheer number of maple bats that seem to be breaking. And, again, the splintering of maple bats is not a new phenomenon.
"It's unbelievable. We're seeing eight to 10 bats break every game. Guys are coming back saying they hit the ball on the sweet spot and it still broke," Joe Maddon, the current manager of the Rays, said. "I don't know if the bats are just too dry or they put the label on the wrong side, but there's an awful lot of firewood being left on the infield every night."
Maddon said that to the Los Angeles Times in 2005.
Maple bats are generally considered denser, heavier and less flexible than their ash counterparts, so that when they break, they don't crack like ash. "Maple bats break much more dramatically because of the shorter grain structure. When they break, they explode," says Rick Redman of Louisville Slugger, the biggest supplier of bats to MLB. Louisville Slugger, the imprimatur of batmaker Hillerich & Bradsby, now makes more maple bats for big leaguers than ash ones. "I don't think any of us really know, for sure, whether maple bats break more. But ash bats don't break as dramatically."
The issue reached critical mass earlier this year when a piece of a maple bat swung by the Pirates' Nate McLouth struck Pittsburgh hitting coach Don Long just below the eye, damaging a nerve and opening up a gash that needed stitches to close. Less than two weeks later, a piece of a bat swung by Colorado's Todd Helton flew into the stands in Dodger Stadium, breaking a fan's jaw.
The challenge for baseball is to find out whether what many around the game are seeing is actually true -- that maple bats break more often and more violently -- or whether that's simply anecdotal. And that's going to take some looking into. Baseball has ordered studies on maple bats and how the ball reacts off of them as compared to ash (there's not much difference). And Jim Sherwood, who runs the Baseball Research Center at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, has done research for MLB into how maple bats break. The league, too, has started to compile some information on its own. But no data has been released.
"There's just been this kind of hysteria. People have just been wound up about it," says MaxBat's Anderson. "The injuries were unfortunate. But there has to be more research done, rather than just saying, 'Hey, let's ban them.'"
Anderson says that his company, instead, would welcome revised regulations on bat specifications. The current rules, he says, allow for barrels that are too big (up to 2 3/4 inches in diameter) and handles than might be considered by some as too skinny (and sometimes are made even skinnier when players shave them to cut down on weight). The relationship between the size of the barrel (Anderson says they should be no bigger than 2 ½ inches in diameter) and the size of the handle (the regulation states it can be no skinnier than 16/19 of a inch), if too severe, may well cause bats to snap.
The rules on the relationship between the length of the bat and the weight of it also should be revised, he says. Anderson's company, for example, would like to see a limit of what he calls "minus-2" between the length of the bat (in inches) and its weight (in ounces). McLouth's bat, the one that exploded and struck his hitting coach, was a 33 1/2-inch, 30-ounce model -- a minus-3. "That's a recipe for disaster," Anderson says. "It's not the wood species. It's the profile."
All of those changes would presumably enable the companies that make maple bats -- there are more than 30 registered batmakers with MLB, all of whom must carry liability insurance -- to use better wood stock to produce safer, more dependable bats. And safety is the overriding factor in this discussion, a concern that has prompted calls for increased netting around the stands as well.
Still, another factor on a possible ban of maple bats can't be ignored: money. A ban on maple, though it would save clubs money -- teams buy the bats for their players, and maple is more expensive than ash -- would be a major headache, at least temporarily, for bat-producing companies, even for giant Louisville Slugger, which owns about 60 percent of the business for major-league bats. "There's a supply chain that has to be taken into consideration," says Redman. "If there was a ban placed on maple bats tomorrow, I think there would be some scrambling."
For MaxBat (a division of Glacial Wood Products, Inc., the No. 1 custom wood turning facility in the world) and many of the smaller companies, a ban would mean more than a temporary headache. It would be financially crippling.
"We really haven't thought of what to do if there is a ban. But I don't think that an all-out ban is likely," Anderson says. "I would hope that common sense will prevail."