Eric Byrnes/Miguel Olivo - August 2006
Don Long/Nate McLouth - April 2008
Todd Helton/Susan Rhodes - April 2008
Miguel Olivo/Brian O' Nora - June 2008
Mike Napoli/Brad Ziegler - August 2010
Welington Castillo/Tyler Colvin - September 2010
The names and dates above link to six separate, highly publicized incidents in which broken or shattered maple bats have hit and or injured persons at an MLB game, both those on the playing field and off it. In the most recent case, Colvin, a Chicago Cubs rookie playing in his first full season, was struck in the chest by the sharp end of Castillo's bat and ended up with a wound that will prevent him from playing in any further action this year. The injuries sustained by Long, O'Nora (pictured) and Rhodes were considerably more horrifying than Colvin's, but in spite of maple's notoriety for emulating a cruise missile with Frisbee rotation, there has yet to be any action taken by the league. I know I'm far from the first person to bring this up, but here's what people aren't talking about: it's almost a certainty that the situation will get worse before it gets better. According to an official quoted in the Byrnes/Olivo article, it would take years to end the production and use of maple bats if commissioner Bud Selig were to put the kibosh on them after this season. Here's the 2006 quote from Chuck Schupp, an employee for the company that makes Louisville Sluggers:
Schupp, in his 24th year with Hillerich & Bradsby and the liaison between the company and the players, said he recently warned MLB not to make a hasty decision on eliminating maple.
"I told Major League Baseball if they say maple bats can't be used anymore, do not do it until late 2008 or 2009," Schupp said. "We already ordered everything for next year. You've got to cut the wood, dry it, process it. I can't call the lumber mill and say I need 10,000 ash bats."
Do the math and you see that maple will still be terrorizing ball fields for at least another 3 years; with a possible maple extermination looming, veterans will be racing to use whatever maple is still left in production at the time of decree. That said, at least there is something being done - certain maple bats were banned in the minor leagues this year, and bat specifications were tweaked to promote bat strength. It seems that the MLB is trying to root out the problem by applying the rules to all who have yet to make a 40-man roster, but the rule needs to be clarified considerably. An example: if a player spends his entire time in the minor leagues hitting with an ash bat, and then gets called up and wants to use a maple bat, can he? Sure, you would guess he would stick with what works, but if he thinks maple gives him added power over the contact he felt using an ash bat, wouldn't he use it? More importantly, anyone who has already made it to The Show has free reign to use whatever they like, so the present rule would not completely eradicate the existence of maple until all of the players who debuted last year finish their careers.
The unknown entity here is the stance of the MLB Players' Association, which will most likely seek to retain the maple bats in spite of their dangers so that it can provide the best competitive advantage to the players who are members of the union. As someone who owns a maple bat, I understand that perspective completely - maple seems sturdier and solid contact feels more pure than the same swing made with an ash bat. The real issue, as McLouth pointed out, might be more psychological at this point, given how particular players are about the equipment they use; after all, this is the superstition-fraught sport that gave us Pedro Cerrano.
At the same time, there are extenuating circumstances here that say otherwise. When Colvin was struck, he was running in foul territory while watching to make sure the ball Castillo hit was not caught - he did not have any reason to think he was in danger of bodily harm, being that he was not in the field of play and not near the ball. Had he run just a little bit faster, he might have been struck unexpectedly in the face, and that's a fear no player wants to have while he's trying to do his job. Likewise, Rhodes and Long were paying attention a ball in the field of play when they were hit; if fans and players alike are not properly protected during game action, they can't be expected to watch/play at the risk of their own physical health. Others writing about this topic have mentioned the additional netting put in place by the NHL after an errant puck fatally struck a 13-year-old girl, and it wouldn't be a bad idea for Selig to at least consider having the same kind of netting put in place between the dugouts and the present backstop at each ballpark - though you can catch a high-speed foul ball, you can't exactly stop a shattered bat with a baseball glove.
Given the preference for maple, it will not be easy to find a suitable replacement for SamBats and other popular brands used by the pros. One thought would be to mandate a bat that is some combination of a composite handle and a maple barrel that would make the maple less likely to shatter in long, sharp fragments as it presently does. Another idea is simply trying to find a different wood source for bats - many cricket bats are made of willow, which might be a decent alternative if it can be cut down to an easy-to-wield weight. Whatever the solution, the decision needs to be made in winter meetings before the start of next season - it would not be wise or safe for the MLB to continue to allow its faithful patrons to risk their own livelihoods because they are unable to keep track of two divergent trajectories, hit ball and flying bat, at one time. No other major sport forces us to do that on a regular basis.
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Credit to Yahoo! Sports, MLB.com, SB Nation, SFGate.com, ESPN.com and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for media and information used in this post.