The Dangers of Maple Bats is a Major League Problem
This will be the first in a 3 part series on the maple bat controversy.
The crack of the wooden bat during an at bat at a baseball game is one of the purest sounds echoing throughout the stands. It can be one of the reason we come to the games, to hear that blast of wood send a sphere deep into the day/night with a chance for a home run. That same crackling of the bat is becoming a problem in Major League Baseball. It has set up a menagerie of actions and precautions to keep fans. players, and even the umpires safe from a new menace plaguing the game of baseball.
Some have called for action concerning this plague, while others think it is just the revolution of the game and its equipment, and measures will be done in-house to correct the presumed dangers and possible injuries from it’s creation. Some think that Barry Bonds made this revolution take front stage after his home run hitting display a few years ago. That the extra power and drive that Bonds got out of his maple bats might be the answer to renewing the promise of more homers in the majors. But at what cost do we make those changes. Do we endanger our kids and even ourselves. Do we put the burden on the highly paid players to know what is right and hold them accountable if disaster does occur.
Here is s short story I have heard from the news wire services over the last year that might open eyes wide and make use take notice that we might be on borrowed time here if we sit within 150 feet of the plate. During a Class-A game in Modesto California, a Modesto Nut batter swung at a ball and cracked his maple bat during a line drive. what the crowd did not notice was the ball falling into left-center field for a single, but the spinning end-over-end bat heading towards the stands.
This 24-inch, 26-ounce projectile was hurdling towards a group of eight kids sitting in the front row at John Thurman Field. The bat ended up cradling in the netting that surrounds the seating area just behind home plate. The kids were frightened, but no worse the wear and quickly were chanting again for their ball club. But what was amazing is that the crowd did not follow the ball, but the bat in flight until it got caught in the netting. Most did not even know it went for a single until after the event was unfolded.
But Selig and the MLB’s 16-member Health and Safety committee met 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. Was it after Don Long, the Pittsburgh Pirates hitting coach on April 15th in Dodger Stadium was cut through his left cheek by a shard of bat off his own hitter Nate McLouth. Or maybe one of it’s own employees’, Umpire Brian O’Nora, who was slashed across the forehead by a bat shard during the Kansas City Royals game. O’Nora was removed from the game after a large gash appeared on his forehead, he was treated and released later that night, but you got to remember, he was wearing protective gear and still got injured by the exploding maple bat.
Or maybe it was when it got close and personal to one of the team owners in the MLB. During an Arizona Diamondbacks game on May 15th, Diamond back CEO Jeff Moorad saw a piece of Matt Holiday’s bat come within feet of him and slam into a railing right next to him. Or could it have been the highly televised injury sustained by Susan Rhodes during a Los Angeles Dodger game.
On April 25th, Rhodes decided to attend a Dodger game with a friends and was sitting four rows up from the dugout when Colorado Rockies first baseman Todd Helton came to bat. Helton, who uses a maple bat swung on a pitch from Cory Wade and the ball was struck cleanly, but the bat exploded upon impact and sent a shard into the stands in the direction of Rhodes.
Rhodes was watching the ball fall into center field and did not see the shard tomahawking towards her. When she regained consciousness, she asked her friends what had happened to her. The Dodgers quickly dispatched paramedics to her side and took her to an on-site medical facility.Once stabilized, they offered to give her a ride to a local hospital emergency room, but she declined and wanted to seek attention closer to her home in Sherman Oaks, California.
It was at her local doctors that a CAT scan revealed that she suffered two 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. After three agonizing days, she underwent surgery to repair the damage and upon completion of the surgery, had her jaw wired for her protection and for faster healing of the injury. A post script to this disaster is that Helton was not even using his own bat, as he borrowed one from team mate Troy Tulowitzki before heading to the plate. Could his error have been using a bat he was not accustom to swinging, and the extra torque might have caused the bat to shatter?
Now this brings about a fine line about the dangers of attending a game. Rhodes is considering legal action after finding out that the Dodgers insurance carrier will not cover penny one of her medical bills. But that leaves to question if the assumed risk of attending the game is put into question by the actions of a player using a bat that can cause harm and damage upon breakage. Warnings printed on the back of tickets and signs posted throughout the seating bowl now specify that bats as well as balls are dangers to spectators.
( Sign posted in Tropicana Field as you come up the stairs towards Section 138) ” PLEASE BE ALERT TO BATS AND BALLS ENTERING THE SEATING AREA. PLEASE DO NOT INTERFERE WITH BALLS IN PLAY. VIOLATORS ARE SUBJECT TO EJECTION”). The problem is, attentive fans- those watching the flight of the ball- are sitting ducks for bats spinning off into other directions. Yet, in terms of whether a bats or ball are equal in terms of risk to spectators, a local court attempted to conduct a determination on the case brought by a woman hit during the 1998 playoff game between the Cleveland Indians and the New York Yankees.
That brings upon another subject here, can a legislative body take upon itself the actions to extend or even mandate that a certain area of the ballpark be screened in for the protection of it’s constituents. Legislators could conceivably pass bills requiring the facility upgrades, but such an effort and cost would be stymied by about 100 years of case laws siding with the baseball team. 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.”
This rule might be outdated since the advent of this rule was established before the advent of the more “lively” baseball after the 1920’s. The possible effects of continuing development of today’s hitters combined with changes in equipment ( maple bats) and the overindulgence of the senses during games from scoreboard noise to crowd induced items ( cowbells) take away a fans attention in a second. All of these elements make today’s stadiums more dangerous than the venues of the past.
It is said that about 65 percent of all major leaguers use 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 right and designed right, they should last a long time. But what can be done to make sure the drying process is not skipped, or the bats not subject to high humidity or extreme temperature changes. Do we install bat humidors now in major league clubhouses and only pull out two bats a day to use in the dugout and leave the rest to their humidity rejuvenated hotbox?
People have said that a truly horrendous and maybe deadly encounter with a maple bat might happen in the future. Is baseball and its players playing a bit of Russian Roulette with themselves and team mate and fans, or will the industry become more safety-oriented before 2009 and redesign or re-manufacture the bats prototypes. At the June 24, 2008 meeting, the bat manufacturers were not invited to attend the meetings. the 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 be illegally modifying the weight-length ratios of the bats by sanding them down, or even planing off wood surfaces. And a primary discussion on if the kiln drying process might be making the maple bats too light for the collision with baseballs.
The last time that baseball changed to the allowable bat specifics was back in 1893, when they outlawed the flat-sided bats. Some people have suggested that Selig should consider a temporary restraining order on maple bats, banning them until safety assurances can be put into place. However, such a plan would be met by huge opposition and possible logistical nightmare. With the majority of players currently having maple bats in their possession, short of players sharing ash bats, Little League-style, there may not be enough bats to equip them in early 2009.
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.
Or will it take an action in the majors like what happened to minor leaguer right-handed pitcher Rick Helling. While pitching in the game for the Nashville Sound, he was impaled by in his left arm by a 15-inch shard from the bat of New Orleans hitter Craig Kuzmic. The shard penetrated three inches into his arm. The wild part is that the pitch was fouled off and did not even enter the field of play, but split into four shards and propelled out of the batters box towards the mound. Helling was taken to an area hospital, but the injury was not considered life threatening and returned to pitch for the Sound later in the season.
The maple bat because of denser 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. A pitcher, one of the most vulnerable players on the field to ball hit up the middle is not in danger nightly from a bat impaling him too. Change will come, and hopefully it will evolve before an injury set up a chain of events that will lead to hysteria and not to practicality. It is in the glove of Selig now, along with the MLB Health and Safety committee to bring this home….safe and sound.