The danger of maple bats is a major problem for MLB
There is a scourge upon the otherwise robust game that commissioner Bud Selig must do something about quickly. No, it's not the Seattle Mariners, the most wasteful $110 million ever spent in baseball. It is the daily danger caused by broken maple bats. Baseball has a full-blown safety threat on its hands and the commissioner, who needs the cooperation of the players association to address it, is confronted with an historically important decision.
Selig has expressed his concern about the maple bats and will have his major league baseball officials meet next week, June 24, with union members to discuss possible course of action. Doing nothing no longer is an option. Selig must decide whether to push for an outright ban of maple or for changes to the allowable bat specifications, such as barrel size, handle size or the minimum weight relative to the bat's length. You need to go all the way back to 1893 -- when flat-sided bats were banned with a rule stating "bats must be completely round" -- to find a change to hitter's equipment as important as the one that might be forthcoming.
Another option that baseball is reluctant to put on the table is to increase the protective netting behind the diamond, such as extending it between the dugouts. Given the increased pricing of premium seats, and the appeal they carry of being close to the action, baseball has shown little inclination for putting more barriers between the high-paying fans and the game.
The danger of maple bats is, however, so clearly established that every major league baseball game is an accident and lawsuit waiting to happen. Baseball will not be able to claim in court that it was unaware of the hazards caused by maple bats, which routinely break apart in large jagged pieces that put players and, most especially, fans in harm's way. Major league baseball has been collecting breakage information for years from club equipment managers and, most obviously, seen the scary highlights nightly.
The danger is so prevalent that Selig should consider the equivalent of a temporary restraining order, banning them immediately until and unless safety assurances can be put in place. However, such urgency presents a major logistical problem. Approximately 55 percent of major leaguers use maple. Short of players sharing bats, Little League-style, there may not be enough ash bats to equip them.
"If you were to say, 'No maple bats after the All-Star Game,' that's a problem, " said Chuck Schupp, manager of professional bat sales for Hillerich & Bradsby. "We can't buy all the trees needed, cut them, dry the wood and make the bats in 30 days. It's just not possible. We don't have enough billets in the pipeline to fill 100 percent usage."
Pirates hitting coach Don Long and a fan at Dodger Stadium, Susan Rhodes, have been struck in the face by broken maple bats. In recent years right-handed pitcher Rick Helling, while pitching in the minor leagues, was impaled in the left arm by a broken bat, a 15-inch shard penetrating three inches into his arm. The maple bats, because of a denser cell structure, do not crack like ash bats but break apart, with the jagged barrel piece typically flying up to 100 feet in any direction: toward the pitcher, infielders, base coaches, dugouts and, most dangerously, toward fans who watch the flight of the baseball, not the bat part, if they happen to be paying attention to the game at all.
"I'm not so much worried myself," Blue Jays third baseman Scott Rolen said. "I'm locked in and concentrated on every pitch and every swing. I can see the ball and the bat. But I don't want my family sitting near the field unless they are behind the [backstop] screen. The bats are a hazard for fans more so than players."
Said Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez, "I've never seen anything like it. Even if I'm 140 feet away [at third] base I'm in danger. In the last year or two I've seen more bats break. Why not ban them? They've banned everything else."
Both Rolen and Rodriguez use ash bats. Rolen said he tried maple bats briefly, but gave them up when two of those bats exploded even though he made contact with the baseball on the sweet spot of the barrel, a common complaint among maple users.
"Oh, yeah, I've hit balls right on the nose and they break in half," said Yankees outfielder Johnny Damon, who recently ordered ash bats after breaking a small forest of maple bats over recent years.
How did major league baseball allow this danger to proliferate? The collective bargaining process makes it difficult for baseball, like an enormous cruise ship, to make quick turns. The owners did ask the players in 2006 labor negotiations for changes to the official bat specifications over the concern about maple, but the players adamantly opposed those proposals. Bats can have barrels no larger than 2 3/4 inches, handles no thinner than 16/19-of-an-inch diameter and a length no greater than 42 inches.
Baseball players gradually have moved toward light bats with thick barrels and thin handles, in part because they have learned to hit with metal bats with those characteristics, because of the evolution of hitting in which contact is compromised for power and because of more information about the technical and physical elements of hitting. For instance, Babe Ruth in 1927 wielded a 35-inch bat that weighed 40 ounces while becoming the father of power hitting. But Ruth probably didn't need such weight, or mass, in his bat. Because the bat already has so much more mass than the ball, bat speed (velocity) is much more significant than the mass.
Maple bats are thought to have been introduced into the game by Toronto outfielder Joe Carter in the early 1990s and became increasingly popular due to the wood's hardness, though the usage rate has leveled off in the past few years. Testing has shown that balls do not leave a maple bat with any greater velocity than off an ash bat. Until maple, ash was the lone source of bats since it replaced hickory in the 19th century. (Rules stipulate only that bats be a one-piece solid piece of wood.) Players who prefer maple bats note that they do not flake like ash bats can and tend to maintain their hardness longer - as long as they don't bust in half.
"I don't like the way the stuff breaks, no," Schupp said.
Hillerich & Bradsby, as well as other bat manufacturers (of which there are many more than when Carter brought maple to the big leagues), will not be part of the June 24 discussions, but clearly need to consulted at some point in the process. Nimbleness and responsiveness never have been part of baseball's strong suits. But the danger of maple bats is unmistakable. The owners and players must move smartly but also quickly before more injuries occur.