Beyond The Hype: Not So Good Wood

By Diane M. Grassi
Updated: March 17, 2009

NEVADA — Upon the release of new and unprecedented regulations and mandates prescribed for all Major League Baseball (MLB) certified bat manufacturers on December 15, 2008, no attention was garnered by the mainstream media at the time.

As such, a disservice was done to these unheralded craftsmen who largely for the past decade have been trying to compete with the behemoth Hillerich & Bradsby Company, the manufacturer of the renowned Louisville Slugger.

Not unlike the small business owner trying to remain fiscally sound and viable in the current marketplace in the toughest economy in nearly 80 years, small sized and boutique bat makers struggle to survive.

However, the question must be asked, was it ever intended by MLB for them to compete with the likes of Louisville Slugger? Louisville Slugger supplied over 50% of MLB bats in spite of 31 other certified suppliers during the 2008 season. And of those that they supplied to MLB, over 60% of them were made of maple wood.

But dissimilar to many small businesses striving to stave off bankruptcy in the current economic climate, it was MLB which poured salt in the wounds of many of these small business bat makers.

MLB increased its already excessive fees for the privilege of providing bats to its players, and gives them no legal protections for that privilege. And now bat makers must also agree to be subject to random audits over their manufacturing processes, thus giving up their trade secrets on their products.

One could only hope that MLB would have had such a stringent criterion in place regarding its drug testing program, which to this day chooses to ignore George Mitchell’s recommendation in his 2007 report to MLB; that the testing facility be an independent entity, which it currently is not.

And for all of MLB Commissioner Bud Selig’s aplomb regarding how MLB’s drug testing program is the best and most stringent in all of professional sports, most MLB players still are only tested two times per season.

The initial test all of them get the first week of spring training. Some players do get a random third test during the year. However, the latest figures available for off-season testing are from between the 2007 and 2008 seasons. The number of off-season tests given to players at that time was a total of 60.

The pending issue on the rate of flailing broken bats in MLB games, predominantly over the past five seasons precipitated an investigation largely targeting maple wood.

It perpetuated MLB’s nearly overnight solution to the problem after years of never having taken an interest as to the integrity of any equipment being used throughout MLB clubhouses.

Prior to the upcoming 2009 MLB season, MLB teams essentially had an honor code when it came to bats, gloves and balls, not to mention uniforms and the body armor used in the batter’s box, which seemingly pushes the envelope more and more each season.

But unlike MLB’s present drug testing program, which lingered for years amidst wrangling with the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA), MLB’s newly sprung regulations for the bat making process was a unilateral directive, which many of these bat suppliers have since learned, took little of their input into consideration.

And true to form, both the drug testing program and the latest bat manufacturing regulations remain flawed by MLB and apparently now a topic no longer open for further discussion.

Unfairly, such bat manufacturers, who have been providing bats for MLB teams, and in some cases for many years, were given only a 30-day window to meet the new requirements.

By January 15, 2009, in order for such suppliers to comply with the new provisions in their contracts with MLB, they were required to ante up a $10,000.00 administration fee, which is double the fee required for 2008.

Bat makers also are required to provide proof of a broad-based liability insurance policy which now requires $10 million in coverage, per occurrence, up from the $5 million of required coverage in 2008.

Such coverage can cost upwards of $100,000.00 per season for each bat supplier. Additionally, bat makers also needed to show proof of 15 dozen manufactured bats in their inventory by that January 15th date.

All of the criteria prior to bat manufacturing approval also now include myriad disclosures of individual manufacturing processes which must be adhered to by each bat maker and are dependent upon the actual type of wood they use in the process.

So for example, the term “sweet spot,” historically has been used to refer to the part of the barrel where the bat’s trademark or label was put and where the hitter would get the most bang for his buck.

Players were taught to turn the label facing up in order for the bat to hit the ball with the grain. Now, the newly concocted guidelines entail that the label be 90 degrees rotated, thus the bat will make contact with the ball against the grain for all maple bats, which also now must be two-tone in color.

Since more than 50% of all MLB players use maple bats, such a change stands to arguably interfere with players’ swings and could prove a distraction to them.

But one must look past that as an issue as it does not seem to register with MLB that this may create an unintended hindrance for its players. After all, players are more than welcome to hit with the more traditional ash bats that will allow them to hit with the grain.

Furthermore, it is stunning that the indemnity clause in the agreement states that the bat supplier, “Agrees to at its sole expense, indemnify, defend and hold harmless all MLB Entities and Individuals from and against any claims, suits damages and costs arising from or related to its bats that are approved for use in Professional Play, the use of such bats, and defects or deficiencies in or the breaking of such bats.”

In addition, “Each bat supplier shall be required by the Office of the Commissioner of Baseball and shall name each of the MLB Entities and Individuals as additional insured’s under such policies.”

So essentially, MLB is holding the small bat manufacturer liable for any mishap that might occur directly or indirectly from a broken or flying bat on the field or in the stands and assumes no responsibility itself. On its face it does not exactly give fans the sense that MLB or the owners of its teams care about their safety.

For a multi-billion dollar business which Commissioner Bud Selig has had no problem crowing about how its revenues totaled a combined $13 billion the past two seasons, it would appear that it would be in a far better position financially to make whole a fan or a player, a coach or an umpire on the field of play, who is unintentionally injured by a bat at the ballpark.

It is not a like-issue with regard to baseballs, as they are exclusively manufactured by the Rawlings Manufacturing Co., a multi-national corporation with deep pockets.

The upshot is that due to the short time frame allotted bat manufacturers to comply with all of MLB’s demands, including the technical information about the manufacturer’s wood processing, it is rife for excluding as many of them as possible.

However, there had been a quorum of small bat manufacturers that asked MLB to meet with them during the MLB Winter Meetings, which took place in Las Vegas, the first week of December 2008.

Shut Out

At that time many bat makers had already supplied feedback in detailed reports as requested by MLB on recommendations to the bat making process they would make in order to mitigate the breaking and shattering of both maple and ash bats, predominantly the woods of choice.

Unfortunately, regardless of the feedback that MLB did receive in written form, the bat makers were shunned when they requested a sit-down with the MLB Health and Safety Committee, which was formed in June 2008, and with Roy Krasik, the Senior Director of MLB Operations, at the Winter Meetings.

Not unlike that which takes place in our nation’s Capitol and in the West Wing of the White House, much window dressing and self-aggrandizement goes on in MLB. And very often the issues at stake get short shrift.

Such a case could be made in this instance regarding “overhauling” the bat manufacturing process to allow MLB to appear that it has adequately addressed the issue.

But in this case, MLB’s powers-that-be may have interfered a bit too much by imposing unproven regulations upon its bat suppliers, who are the principals who best know their craft.

In essence it really comes down to a matter of common sense, which the Office of the Commissioner of MLB has clearly lacked since Bud Selig’s term began in 1992.

At issue is not only the length to weight ratios of bats but the wood’s moisture content and probably most obvious of all, the thinner handles relative to the larger bat barrels.

Even though MLB now newly insists on a detailed analysis of the manufacturing process, the unadulterated alteration of bat handles and bat cups by both clubhouse equipment managers and players alike, known to have done so in the past, will not be monitored by MLB.

And the bat manufacturer will now have the burden of proof that its bats were manipulated after-market, should irregularities be found.

There has been a size restriction on MLB bats since 1862 regarding the diameter of the barrel which was not to exceed 2.5 inches. Then in 1895, 2.75 inches became the maximum diameter as it remains today and prior to in 1868 the length of the bat could be no longer than 42 inches, which remains the standard today.

With respect to weight, the maximum difference between inches and ounces must be less than 3.5 ounces. Therefore, a 34 inch long bat must weigh at least 30.5 ounces.

And the ratio between the diameter of the bat handle and the diameter of the barrel as well as the lightness of the bat’s weight all contribute to the integrity of the bat, although the bat handle’s diameter may not exceed 0.842 of an inch. Such has been the case since the Collective Bargaining Agreement with the MLBPA in 1994.

Finally, when MLB asked for suggestions from numerous parties regarding the shard and exploding bat phenomena, the obvious answer at least immediately was to extend the netting behind home plate, used in all MLB stadiums, to include those areas of seating along the first base and third base lines.

But Bud Selig’s response was that it would take away from the enjoyment of the game’s experience and block the view of the fans; at least those fans who occupy the most expensive seats in the ballpark.

Again, this is not about the “best interests of baseball,” the best interests or health of the fans or providing the best bats or equipment for MLB players.

Rather, it is about MLB’s almighty dollar, its total domination of its environment and for it to remain Goliath to its many Davids; in this case the bat makers.

But in a 2009 economy, MLB would be doing itself a service if it far more respected those who brought it to the dance; the fans and the small businesses that prop it up.

Both are central to its continued success rather than its sponsors that come and go and have a dollar interest not a baseball interest in the game.

And sadly, the “best interests of baseball” can no longer be readily found at 245 Park Avenue in New York City, the home of the executive suites of MLB.

NOTE: This article is the third in a series of reports by Diane M. Grassi: Are MLB Bats the New PED’s? (2008) & MLB Bats Whittled Down To An Uneven Playing Field (2007). For more information, log on to BASN’s archives.