A Time Bomb Waiting To Happen?

By Daniel Malloy
Updated: July 18, 2008

PITTSBURGH – Sitting at a computer in the Pirates’ video room in PNC Park last week, hitting coach Don Long cues up a short clip.

April 15, 2008, Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles, Nate McLouth at the plate in the eighth inning.

McLouth lines a pitch to right field for a double. In the dugout, Long is watching the ball as a jagged shard of maple wood — about half of McLouth’s broken bat — flies toward him, twirling like a helicopter blade.

“I never saw it,” Long says, watching the computer screen with the eye he’s lucky to still have.

The sharp end of the bat strikes him a couple of inches below his left eye, leaving a scar and nerve damage that doctors say could take another year to heal. That part of his face is still numb, so Long can’t quite smile all the way.

If McLouth was using an ash bat, it would have shattered into smaller, mostly harmless pieces. But a majority of Major League Baseball players now use maple, which breaks into large chunks.

Because of Long’s injury and several other incidents this year, the league has begun to investigate how to reduce the danger. Short of banning maple — a long shot considering the ubiquity of the wood among superstitious major leaguers — baseball people disagree on if and how to modify the bats to make them safer.

But everyone agrees that action is warranted before a serious injury or death strikes America’s pastime.

“There’s a serious, serious safety issue in front of us, and it’s going to be a matter of how we handle it,” Pirates equipment manager Roger Wilson said.

“It’s a time bomb waiting to happen.”

A recent phenomenon

Broken bats always have been a part of baseball, but maple has risen to prominence only in the past half decade.

One of the first high-profile players to use maple was Toronto’s Joe Carter, beginning in the late 1980s. The wood didn’t catch on, though, until Barry Bonds swatted 73 home runs with maple in 2001.

Bonds’ bats came from Ottawa-based manufacturer Sam Holman, and all of a sudden, business at Holman’s Original Maple Bat Co. was booming and major manufacturers started churning out maple bats.

Now, BWP Bats, based in Brookville, Jefferson County, gets 80 percent of its business from maple bats and about 15 percent from ash, according to vice president Mike Gregory.

They cost $5 to $20 more and tend to last longer than ash bats, which long were dominant in the majors. Players like maple for its harder feel and longer life — maple bats, on average, last for about a month, while ash tends to break after a week or so.

“It seems to be more durable,” said McLouth, who switched to maple about five years ago after trying it out in batting practice.

“A lot of times with ash it starts to flake because the grains are different.”

A study commissioned by MLB in 2005 revealed that there was no difference in how fast the ball comes off maple or ash bats, but in the delicate mentality of a hitter, perception is everything.

“If I have something in my hands that I perceive to make me a better hitter, and I have more confidence because of that, you have to factor that in, too,” Long said.

Estimates vary on how many major league players use maple, but it certainly is more than half.

McLouth said about 90 percent of the Pirates use it. Oakland equipment manager Steve Vucinich said 70 percent of the Athletics swing with maple, and Washington equipment manager Mike Wallace said that among the Nationals, it’s 75 percent.

As the use of maple has risen, so has the number of dangerous maple projectiles.

Ten days after Long’s injury, in the same stadium, Dodgers fan Susan Rhodes had her jaw shattered by a flying maple chunk from the hand of Todd Helton of the Colorado Rockies.

And for every injury, there are several more near-misses.

“I can’t think of many games we’ve played this year, 90-something games, that there hasn’t been one from either side that has shattered,” Long said. “It’s definitely something that’s got to be dealt with.”

In response to increasing concerns, the league formed a committee to address bat safety, which met June 24 and agreed the matter needed further study.

MLB spokesman Pat Courtney said members of the committee will speak to bat manufacturers and researchers and collect more data from the teams on which bats break and when.

“This is definitely fast-tracked,” Courtney said. “It was a topic of more than just conversation. It was gone over out of the owners’ meetings as a big concern in May that this had to be addressed.”

Mere hours after the meeting, plate umpire Brian O’Nora was hit in the head with a shattered maple bat and had to leave a game between Colorado and Kansas City.

Maple prohibition?

The spike in media attention and threat of action from MLB has led many players to contemplate ditching maple, with some jumping ship.

Wilson, the equipment manager, said a few Pirates, slugger Jason Bay among them, have switched from maple to ash in recent months.

“The players, they’re aware of things,” Wilson said. “They don’t want to see their teammates get hurt or anybody else get hurt. So some of them are making a conscious effort to take a look at ash again.”

Vucinich, Oakland’s equipment manager, said Frank Thomas and Eric Chavez recently have gone from maple to birch.

Gregory, of BWP Bats, said no teams have altered their order, but several equipment managers have inquired about maple alternatives in case the league or general managers — fearful of a serious incident in their stadiums — mandate a switch.

Such an idea seems silly to Holman, of the Original Maple Bat Co., whose business would suffer mightily if there is a maple exodus.

“The ball has killed more fans than any bat,” Holman said, “and no one is advocating whiffle balls — so far.”

An outright ban is unlikely, though, because any rule change would have to be collectively bargained with the players’ union, which is full of maple-loving members. A more probable outcome of the league’s inquiry would be an adjustment to bat regulations.

Such measures as making the ratio of length to weight more even — bats now can be 3.5 inches longer than they weigh in ounces — or mandating thicker handles would reduce the frequency of broken bats, manufacturers and equipment managers said. Also, better monitoring of the wood’s moisture content could be helpful; a dry bat is a brittle bat.

But Wilson said none of those concerns matter as much as the quality of the wood, which he said has been on the decline.

“Where did all that maple wood come from?” Wilson asked of the recent flood of maple bats into the major leagues.

“[Bat companies] weren’t growing those forests 20 years ago to grow good maple trees to harvest bats. So, basically, they are supplying with whatever maple they can come up with, which to me is not good maple wood grown specifically for the purpose of making baseball bats — as Louisville Slugger has done for years with their ash timber. …

“It’s a supply and demand thing, and everybody wants what maple wood is available. So [a manufacturer] isn’t going to say, ‘We don’t have enough wood.’ They are going to buy a lesser-grade wood. Whether they admit it or not, I don’t care. It’s lesser-grade wood, and they are going to make bats and ship them to teams. That’s why we’re getting the breakage.”

Another professional sports league offers baseball a chilling precedent for what could happen if the breakage goes unchecked.

In 2002, an errant hockey puck struck 13-year-old Brittanie Cecil in the forehead at a Columbus Blue Jackets game, and she died two days later. The National Hockey League, as a result, extended the netting near the goals to better protect fans.

All involved hope that MLB won’t need such a wake-up call, that the near disasters for people like Long will be enough motivation to produce an effective solution.

“In any other business, you can’t put out products that are defective — they’re going to get recalled,” Long said.

“Tires get recalled. All kinds of things get recalled. And it’s because they need to be safe. This, for me, is the same thing.”