12/09/08 6:47 PM EST
Safety tests for maple bats mandated
Wood grade must be approved before distribution to players
By Barry M. Bloom / MLB.com
The changes adopted are among nine recommendations presented last month to baseball's Safety and Health Advisory Committee by those hired to analyze wood quality and data, regarding the problem of shattering bats. All the recommendations were accepted by the panel and will be implemented immediately with the goal of completing the transition by Opening Day in April, baseball officials said on Tuesday during a press conference at the annual Winter Meetings."I am hopeful that the implementation of these recommendations will do much to resolve the issues posed by the broken-bat episodes we saw this season, most importantly to assure the safety of our on-field personnel and our fans," said Commissioner Bud Selig in a statement. "I thank the Safety and Health Advisory Committee and their experts for their extensive work on this essential task." Don Fehr, the executive director of the union, said during the press conference that the recommendations allow an attempted fix of the problem in "the least disruptive way." "I'm not only pleased, but I'm actually proud of the work that's been done," he said. The committee, a collectively bargained entity as part of the current Basic Agreement, was charged by Selig in May to find the reason for the problem with maple bats and to recommend a remedy -- up to and including the banning of maple bats from league play. That didn't happen.
After studying thousands of broken bats and hundreds that shattered into multiple pieces, experts concluded the cause was the poor-quality "slope of grain" and ruptures caused by excessive bending."Slope of grain" is a wood-industry term that defines how straight the grain runs along the edge and flat faces of a piece of wood. The more it runs diagonally, the easier chance it has to splinter across that line. If it runs straight through the bat from handle to barrel, the less chance it has of coming apart at all. "That's what's causing the majority of the multiple piece fractures," said David Kretschmann, a general engineer for the Wisconsin-based USDA Forest Service, pointing to a pair of broken bats. "There are substantial slope of grains in these bats and as a result of that they have catastrophic failures and fall into multiple pieces." Ruptures tend to produce cracks in the bat, instead, he said. The research end of this study has cost MLB approximately $500,000 so far, which is to be paid for in part by doubling the administrative fees from $5,000 to $10,000 charged to each bat producing company sanctioned by the sport, said Sandy Alderson, the chief executive of the Padres and a management member of the committee. Liability insurance requirements placed on these companies for possible injuries caused by a shattered bat has been increased from $5 million to $10 million an incident, Alderson added. The nine recommendations are as follows: 1. All bats must conform to specific slope-of-grain wood-grading requirements which apply to the two-thirds length of the bat that constitutes the handle and taper regions of it. All manufacturers must identify and grade the handle end prior to production of the bat to ensure that its slope of grain satisfies the grading requirement. 2. All manufacturers must place an ink dot on the face of the handle of sugar maple and yellow birch bats before finishing. Placing an ink dot enables a person to easily view the slope of grain of the wood. 3. The orientation of the hitting surface on sugar maple and maple bats should be rotated 90 degrees (one-quarter turn of the bat). The edge grain in maple that is currently used as the hitting surface is the weaker of the two choices. To facilitate such a change in the hitting surface, manufacturers must rotate the logos they place on these bats by 90 degrees. 4. Handles of sugar maple and yellow birch bats must be natural or clear finish to allow for inspection of the slope of grain in the handles. 5. Manufacturers must implement a method of tracking each bat they supply -- like a serial number -- so that each can be linked back to the manufacturer's production records. 6. Representatives of each authorized manufacturer should be required to participate in an MLB-sponsored workshop on the engineering properties and grading practices of wood as they relate to the manufacture of solid-wood baseball bats. 7. Manufacturers should be visited on a regular basis by MLB or its designated representatives to audit each company's manufacturing processes and recordkeeping with respect to bat traceability. 8. Audits should be randomly conducted of bats by MLB or its designated representatives at the ballparks to ensure that the new bat requirements are being followed. 9. A formalized third-party bat certification and quality control program should be established to certify new suppliers, approve new species of wood, provide training and education to bat manufactures and address issues of non-compliance. The weighty issue was originally discussed at a committee meeting on June 24 in New York, and since then, various entities have been studying the bats for cause and effect. From July to September 2008, 2,232 bats broke during Major League games -- including both cracked bats that stayed in one piece and bats that broke into multiple pieces -- and were subsequently collected and submitted to the experts for analysis. Of the 2,232 broken bats, 756 shattered into multiple pieces. It was found that under any circumstances, maple bats were three times more likely to break into two or more pieces than ash bats, Kretschmann said. Adding diagonal slope of grain, that ratio increased to 4-1. Kretschmann, though, added that there was no inherent weakness in using maple wood for bats as opposed to ash. Since July, Kretschmann of The USDA Forest Service's Products Laboratory -- the federal government's primary research facility for wood products - studied these wood-quality issues. Dr. Carl N. Morris, a professor of statistics at Harvard University, and Dr. James A. Sherwood, director of the Baseball Research Center and a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, were retained to assist in analyzing the data provided Kretschmann. Members of the committee met with MLB's approved bat suppliers to determine glitches in the manufacturing process and the level of quality control. And finally video tapes of game-related shattered bat incidents were provided by MLB.com for extensive viewing. The matter began getting national attention early this past season as bats continued to splinter regularly, causing injuries to uniformed personnel and fans seated in the stands. On April 25 at Dodger Stadium, a bat used by Colorado's Todd Helton shattered. The barrel spun into the stands behind the Rockies' first-base side dugout and struck a fan in the face, breaking her jaw. About 10 days earlier in the same dugout, Pirates coach Don Long was struck below the left eye by a bat splinter, leaving a bloody gash in his cheek that needed 10 stitches to close. MLB has made equipment changes for safety reasons as recently as this past season. Last year, Mike Coolbaugh, coaching first base in the Rockies' Minor League system, was killed when he was hit in the head by a line drive. This year, MLB mandated that all base coaches at the Major and Minor League levels wear protective helmets when they were in their positions on the field. As far as the bat issue is concerned, this may be only the start of the analysis, both Alderson and Kretschmann said. "This is an ongoing process," Kretschmann said. "There's potential to have another round of for 2010 as a result of what happens in 2009."
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.