Banning maple bats is not the answer
Adjustments to make them safer is the better way to go
The controversy over exploding maple bats is raging, but this much is certain: They're not about to go away any time soon.
To ban the exploding lumber from Major League Baseball would be like asking a mechanic to give up his wrench, a writer his pen, a doctor his stethoscope.
Obviously, I'm exaggerating that. Big leaguers -- they won't agree -- could go back to bats made of traditional ash and probably be just as productive.
But like anything that becomes comfortable and a way of life, it's difficult to legislate change. Especially when it's successful.
That, however, shouldn't stop Commissioner Bud Selig and union chief Don Fehr from doing everything short of banning maple bats to make the environment at ballparks safer for players and fans alike.
About 60 percent of the players now use maple bats. Unlike ash, they don't just break. They shatter -- or explode -- with treacherous pieces flying through the air like a pointed wooden projectile shot from a gun.
The most serious incident this year occurred April 15 when Pittsburgh Pirates coach Don Long was cut on the left side of his nose by an airborne piece of maple when the bat of the Pirates' Nate McLouth splintered during a game at Dodger Stadium. It took 10 stitches to close the wound.
A committee consisting of representatives from the players union, the Commissioner's office and Major League teams will meet June 24 in New York to discuss the issue.
Selig, following owners meetings in Milwaukee on May 15, ordered the formation of the committee to study and gather data on these bats. They became popular in the late 1990s. In 2001, when Barry Bonds slugged his record 73rd home run, he used a maple bat.
"I continue to have great concerns," says Selig. "I watch many games and can tell you we have a lot of bat shattering. This is definitely a safety issue. That was a very serious injury the Pittsburgh coach suffered.
"I want this committee to come back to me with recommendations -- expeditiously. "
Selig says he's also talked with some representatives from bat companies. Fehr adds, "We're going to take a hard look at it [maple bats]."
Jimmie Lee Solomon, executive vice president for baseball operations, says "the committee is going to examine most of all the durability issue of maple bats. Then, it will recommend what we should do."
The wood in maple bats is harder and denser than ash and players insist it is more durable. But there is less grain in maple bats and when they break, they splinter with pieces, mostly from the barrel, flying away like a javelin.
Many players also prefer thin handles, which with the large barrel creates a more dangerous combination.
I can't picture this committee recommending elimination of maple bats. Players, accustomed to the maple product, will obviously protest. Secondly, it would be impossible for companies to immediately supply the Major Leagues with enough ash bats to replace their maple counterparts.
Phillies manager Charlie Manuel says "one of the biggest problems is so many players like to use maple."
He needs look no further than to his own second baseman, Chase Utley, to back up that statement.
"I like them," Utley, who leads the Major Leagues with 21 homers, says without hesitation. "They last a lot longer than ash. They don't fray or chip away. I enjoy them. Some people don't because they feel they explode. I've used maple for my whole big-league career. Yes, I've had a few that have exploded, but I've also had some ash bats that have done the same thing."
Hillerich & Bradsby, manufacturer of the venerable Louisville Slugger, supplies more than 50 percent of the bats used in the Majors. Fifty-two percent of those are made of maple. Overall, there are 32 companies licensed to manufacture and supply bats to the teams.
What this committee needs to determine is if all maple bats are of the same quality, given there are so many manufacturers. There are also different types of maple. Some say red maple doesn't shatter as easily.
The committee should also be exact about specifications of bats -- should the handles not be so thin?
Manuel, who's toured bat factories, adds when the maple wood "cures and dries out there's no moisture in it. A lot of these companies use heating devices to take the moisture out of them. I've seen players hit the ball on the sweetest spot of the bat and it still explodes. They're dangerous because they always have sharp ends."
Because bats are covered in the collective bargaining agreement, any change must be negotiated with the union. Fehr refuses to speculate what recommendation the committee may make.
The dangers of maple bats were discussed as recently as 2006 during negotiations for the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, but nothing happened.
I remember in 1976 when the Dodgers' Steve Yeager, in the on-deck circle, had his esophagus pierced by a jagged piece of flying wood when teammate Bill Russell's bat exploded.
People said then that was an isolated incident.
That wouldn't be the case today. With all the exploding maple bats it could happen in any game.
Management and the players have a chance to lessen those chances.
I don't believe, for obvious reasons, banning maple bats is the answer. Making them safer is.
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.