Sunday Rewind: “Maple Bats are a Major League Problem”
The distinctive crack made by contact of a Major League baseball striking the surface of a wooden bat at a baseball game is one of the purest, and richest sounds to hear echoing throughout the stands during a game. It can be one of the simple reasons we come to the games, to hear that blast of power upon the wood propelling that white sphere deep into the day/night with a fighting chance for a Home Run.
That same crackling sound of the bat is evolving into a beehive of opinions and safety discussions in the hallways and lockerrooms among Major League Baseball. It has set up a false menagerie of potential actions and mis-guided precautions to try and keep fans, players, and even the umpires safe from a new menace that is beginning to plague the game of baseball.
Some have called for action concerning this plague, while others think it is just the ever expanding revolution of the modern game and its feable equipment. And some are led to believe that in-house measures are being done to correct the presumed dangers and possible injuries from it’s creation. Some think that slugger Barry Bonds might have ushered in this evolving revolution and took it to the center stage after his home run hitting display several years ago.
It is the opinion of many that the extra power and long distance hitting ability that Bonds got out of his own series of maple bats might have been the first public recognition that power hitting might have evolved beyond our present generations hitting materials. But at what cost do we make those revolutionary changes, and do we expand into other woods or even grainy materials for our future solutions?
Do we endanger our kids and even ourselves while seeking these answers, or do we go about our “business as usual” until a horrific accident happens or a player is impailed on live television before a change is addressed with vigor. Do we put the burden of our protection upon the highly paid players to know what is right and wrong,and do we personally have the right or the audacity to hold them strictly accountable if disaster does occur with that instrument of hitting in their hands.
Here is a short story I heard a while back from a news wire service like the Associated Press that might open all of our eyes wide and make use take a more concerned pont of reference that we, as fans, might be on borrowed time here if we sit within 150 feet of Home Plate during any level of organized or professional baseball. The incident occured during a Class-A game in Modesto California, a hitter for the Modesto Nuts swung at a pitched ball and cracked his maple bat into several flying shards during a line drive.
A baseball team’s crowd normally would have followed the flight of the hit ball as it fell into left-center field for a single, and they would have been oblivious to the fact that the projectile from the spinning end-over-end shard of the broken maple bat as it headed towards the stands. Most fans would have never even thought of trying to catch a glimpse of the 24-inch, 26-ounce projectile that was hurdling towards a group of eight kids sitting in the front row at John Thurman Field on that play. But the would have been alarmed to see that the bat ended up cradled in the permanent netting that surrounds the seating area just behind home plate.
The kids sitting directly beyond the netting were severly frightened by the incident, but no worse the wear, and were quickly chanting again for their ball club. But what was more amazing is that the game’s crowd did not follow the ball, but that bat shard during its complete flight until it got caught in the netting. Most of the fans in attendance did not even know it dropped in for a single until after the entire event unfolded.
So you have to wonder what the bigwigs at Major League Baseball are doing to prevent a accident, or even a possible death from a bat shard hitting a body during a game. MLB Commissioner Bud Selig and his appointed MLB’s 16-member Health and Safety committee met for the first time on June 24, 2008 to discuss just this kind of destructive force that has entered the baseball world.
But why did it take so long for the obvious to become a immediate problem for baseball? Did the panel sit idle until the April 15,2008 game at Dodger Stadium when Pittsburgh Pirate Hitting Coach Don Long was cut through his left cheek by a shard of bat off his own hitter Nate McLouth. Or maybe ot took an incident against long time MLB Umpire Brian O’Nora, who was slashed across the forehead by a bat shard during a Kansas City Royals game in the same season.
O’Nora was removed from the game after a large gash appeared on his forehead, but the injuries were treated and O’Nora was released later that night from an area hospital later that night, but you got to remember, as an Umpire, he was wearing some pretty well designed protective gear and still got injured by the explosion with that defective maple bat.
Or maybe it was when it got close and personal to one of the MLB team owners during a regularly scheduled game that the danger multiplied instantly. During an Arizona Diamondbacks game on May 15th, Diamondback CEO Jeff Moorad saw a piece of Rockies hitter Matt Holiday’s bat come within a few feet of him and slam into the railing right next to him. Or could it have been the highly televised on camera episode and injury sustained by Los Angeles fan Susan Rhodes during a Los Angeles Dodger home game.
On April 25th, Rhodes decided to attend a Dodger game with a group of friends and was sitting only four rows up from the dugout when Colorado First Baseman Todd Helton came to the plate. Helton,who uses a maple bat, swung on a pitch from Dodger reliever Cory Wade and the ball was struck cleanly on the surface of the bat, but the maple bat exploded upon impact and sent a shard directly into the stands in the eaxact location of Rhodes.
Rhodes was watching the play as the hit ball fell into centerfield and did not see the bat shard tomahawking towards her in time to ward off its impact with her face. When she finally regained consciousness, she immediately asked her friends what had happened to her.The Dodgers game day staff alertly dispatched paramedics to her side and took her to an on-site medical facility for evaluation.
Once stabilized, the on site medical staff offered to give her a ride to a local hospital Emergency Room, but she quickly declined, and wanted to seek medical attention from her personal doctor closer to her home in Sherman Oaks, California. It was at her local doctors that a CAT scan revealed that she suffered two seperate jaw fractures, one on the upper-left side, where the bat struck her, and the other in the lower right-side, where the force reverberated through her facial tissue.
After three agonizing days to relieve some of the swelling, she underwent surgery to repair the damage and upon completion of the surgery, had her jaw wired for her protection and for a quicker response time for the healing of the injury. A post script to this disaster is that Helton was not even using his own bat, he had borrowed one from Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki before heading to the plate during that game.
Could Helton’s only error in this situation be the fact he was using a bat that might not have been to his usual specs and he might have found the accidental “soft-spot” on that bat, or could it just be as simple as Helton was not accustom to swinging that weight and length of bat, and the extra torque of the hit might have caused the bat to shatter?
But that leaves the unanswered question if the assumed ticketholder then takes on the entire risk of attending the game and possibily being a situation where the actions of a MLB player using a bat or thrown/hit ball that can bring about the possible harm and damage to anyone sitting or standing in the stadium that day. Warnings are printed in black and white on the back of game day tickets and numerous signs are usually posted throughout the seating bowl to specify that bats as well as balls are dangers to spectators.
The real problem here is, the less attentive fans- those watching the flight of the ball- that become “sitting ducks” for the possibility of maple bats spinning off into their direction. Yet, in terms of whether a bats or ball are equal in terms of risk to spectators, a local Ohio court attempted to conduct a viable legal determination on the case brought by a woman hit during the 1998 playoff game between the Cleveland Indians and the New York Yankees in then Jacobs Field.
That brings up another subject here, can a legislative body take it upon itself the try and force or enforce actions to extend or even mandate that a certain area of the ballpark be screened in for the protection of it’s local constituents. Legislators could conceivably pass nonsense binding legislation that will require a facilities upgrades, but such an effort and cost would be stymied by about 100 years of possible case laws siding with owners of the baseball team, and not the government or fans requests.
Because of the “limited-duty” rule, the ball park owners need to only protect fans in the areas of the ballpark where injuries are “most likely to occur”, and do not need to expand those screens or netting beyond a position that would be deemed “safe” by their own appointed experts.
It is said that in 2008 about 65 percent of all Major Leaguers use exclusively maple bats during the season. It is said that 52-55 percent of the bats made by Louisville Slugger for the MLB players in 2008 were maple. People within the industry have said that if the maple bats are dried correctly and designed with precision, that the standard maple bat should last a long time.
But what can be done to make sure the drying process is not skipped, or that the bats not subject to high humidity or extreme temperature changes after they leave the producing company’s job site. Does the bat endure as well if it is shipped from a cold locale to a hot and humid location like a Spring Training site?
Do we maybe have to install bat humidors in a large scale like a cigar humidor in every Major League clubhouse and only pull out two bats at a time for game day to use in the dugout and leave the rest to their humidity rejuvenated hotbox?
People around baseball have said that a horrendous and maybe deadly encounter with a maple bat might happen in the near future. Is baseball and its players playing a bad game of Russian Roulette with themselves and their fellow teammate and the fans. Or will the industry become more safety-oriented and begin to redesign or re-manufacture the prototypes of the next generation of maple bats with more safety in mind. At the June 24,2008 MLB Health and Safety committee meeting, the bat manufacturers were not invited to attend the meetings. the MLB 16-man panel wanted to establish parameters before heading deep into the issue.
Things that were under consideration were the additional netting down the baselines. If the players might actually be illegally modifying the weight-length ratios of their personal maple bats by sanding them down, or even planing off the varnish off their bat’s wood surfaces. And a primary discussion on if the kiln drying process might be making the maple bats too light for the highly explosive collision between the maple bats and hard tossed baseballs.
The dangers are real, and will increase as the hitter become stronger and the pitchers increase their velocity to the plate. A disaster will happen somewhere, sometime within the ranks of baseball. I am not sure if it will be a player, a coach or even a fan, but a major injury will call to arms this discussion again and call for reform. Baseball is trying to be proactive here and research and discuss the problem before it festers, but will it be too late.
The maple bat, because of denser internal cell structure, did not break like an ash bat. Helling was taken from the game and was lucky to not have it hit any other part of his body. But shouldn’t that be the ultimate wake up call for change?.
A pitcher standing on the mound is one of the most vulnerable players on the field to a hit ball being slammed up the middle, but now he is also in danger from a possible bat impaling him too. Change will come, and hopefully it will evolve before a horrific injury set up a chain of events that will lead to mass hysteria and not to the practicality of rules changes or a maple bat evolution . It is in the hands now of Selig, along with the MLB Health and Safety committee to bring this situation home….safe and sound.