MLB addressing danger of maple bats

MLB addressing danger of maple bats

Don Long has unwittingly become the face of Major League Baseball's exploding maple bat controversy.

Literally.

The hitting coach of the Pittsburgh Pirates was in the visitor's dugout on the first base side of Dodger Stadium this past April 15 when Nate McLouth led off the eighth inning of an 11-2 loss with a double. Long followed the ball into right field and didn't see a piece of McLouth's bat hurtling toward him.

"I felt something hit me," Long recently told MLB.com. "It was surprising."

The large splinter struck below the left eye, leaving a bloody gash in his cheek that needed 10 stitches to close. For a month, Long said he lost feeling near the left corner of his mouth and the ability to smile on that side. He also said that for a while he felt like he was "shaving a piece of rubber."

But the sensitivity is starting to return and doctors expect him to make a full recovery.

"Now I can actually feel what I'm doing," he said.

Long knows it could have been a lot worse. So does Commissioner Bud Selig, who's anxiously awaiting the outcome of a meeting on Tuesday in New York between his top labor officials and those of the Players Association. The meeting could be the first of several to discuss what has the potential to be a catastrophic issue with life-altering implications.

Every game, maple bats are shattering, sending shrapnel-like shards of wood in indiscriminate directions, thus placing players, coaches, managers, umpires and fans in grave danger.

The remedies range from extending netting behind the plate down the first- and third-base lines as they do in Japanese ballparks to protect fans close to the action, to placing restrictions on the width of bat handles, to banning the use of maple bats completely. But one matter is certain, Selig reiterated again this past Thursday during a telephone conversation from his Milwaukee office: something is going to change.

"I've expressed my great concerns [at the owners' meetings] back in May and still have those concerns," Selig said. "What happened to the coach is a pretty harrowing story. You're right about that. I'd rather see what comes out of the meeting first, but you bet, I have a lot of concerns about it."

For some strange reason, the visitor's dugout at Dodger Stadium this season seems to be the target area where flying fragments of exploding maple bats make their mark.

Barely 10 days after the Long incident, a fan named Susan Rhodes was sitting in the box seats just four rows behind that dugout when the barrel of a maple bat used by Colorado's Todd Helton spun into the stands, shattering her jaw and irrevocably changing her life.

Again, Rhodes was probably following the flight of the ball and didn't see the bat fragment coming.

"All I remember is feeling this complete slam against my face and pain," Rhodes told Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports. "You know when you're in such shock, you think, 'What happened?' I figured I got hit by a ball. I was very conscious of one flying and thought, 'We aren't in a very safe area.' I don't know if I was looking at the ball. I can't remember anything except for the smash and total memory loss."

Maple has replaced ash as the wood bat of choice in the Major Leagues and about 60 percent of all big league players use maple bats instead of ash because they believe the wood is stronger and it lasts longer.

A 2005 study commissioned by MLB and the union revealed that ash bats do not typically shatter into many pieces, while maple bats have a tendency to explode.

Players now have a penchant for using bats with a thinner handle and a larger barrel, which gives the hitter more snap in his swing, but creates a tremendous weight imbalance. Some players even shave the already thin handle to make it slimmer.

"I don't like bats exploding every single day. I'm afraid somebody's going to get hurt, whether it be a player or somebody up in the stands," Indians manager Eric Wedge said. "I think something should be done about it. It's just a matter of time before somebody gets seriously hurt. It's basically like a big knife boomeranging into the stands. It's the worst I've ever seen. You're seeing bats exploding every night. Without a doubt, it's just a matter of when, not if, somebody's going to get hurt."

MLB has made equipment changes for safety reasons as recently as this season.

Last year, Mike Coolbaugh, coaching first base in the Rockies' Minor League system, was killed when he was hit in the neck by a line drive. This year, MLB mandated that all base coaches at the Major and Minor League levels wear protective helmets when they are in their positions on the field.

The National Hockey League, though, didn't move soon enough to protect fans seated high above the goals from soaring pucks until one perished after she was hit during a game at Nationwide Arena at Columbus, Ohio, back on March 16, 2002. A fan struck by a puck during a game earlier that season at Chicago's United Center suffered brain damage.

But following the death of 13-year-old Brittanie Cecil, the NHL quickly conducted a study and three months later decided to place black mesh protective nets above and around the high Plexiglas at each end of the rink, beginning with the 2002-03 season.

In doing so, the NHL simply followed the European standard. And for those baseball fans seated low and down the base lines who may complain about having to view the game through mesh that is meant to protect them, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman had these words of wisdom:

"In less than three minutes, people won't even know it's there," he said at the time. "It was the right thing to do."

Players, of course, have varying opinions about the composition of their bats. And since the bat is the tool of a hitter's trade, they will be the ones most affected. Many point out that maple bats seem to last longer and that ash is not very durable.

A change to ash wouldn't necessarily help the players, said Reds left fielder Adam Dunn.

"It'll help bat companies. They'll get more money," he said. "You can't use ash in batting practice. One round of BP and the bat is done."

Cubs shortstop Ryan Theriot agreed that players use maple bats over ash because they are more durable, but with smaller ballparks coming online during this generation -- bringing fans much closer to the action -- certainly they must be protected.

"I think they should increase the netting," Theriot said. "I hate it when I look above the dugout and there's a little baby sitting there. It's not safe. I don't know what to do -- maybe they ought to let us use aluminum."

Blue Jays first baseman Lyle Overbay currently uses maple, but he says he's switching back to ash as soon as possible.

"Being in the infield, I'm not a big fan of it right now just because I've seen so many break," he said. "For me, ground balls are coming right at me and here comes a bat. What do you do? At the plate, sometimes you don't know the quality of the maple bat. I've hit [the ball right on] the barrel and it's broken. I don't know if it's cracked inside or what the case is, but that's something I'm not enjoying."

Tim Hudson, the right-hander from the Braves, offered a pitcher's perspective.

"The only thing that's really dangerous is when the ball and bat head are coming in the same direction," he said. "Somebody will probably eventually get hurt. But I'd be more concerned with line drives coming back at you than the bat head. It's one of those things that if it happens it will be more of a fluke-like thing."

Ryan Braun, the outstanding second-year Brewers left fielder, said that players won't change anything unless MLB mandates it.

"It's definitely dangerous," he said. "Bats break every single game even when balls are hit right on the barrel. At the same time, it's a preference thing, and until baseball implements something -- makes it a rule that they are illegal -- guys are not going to switch. They like using the [maple] bats and they like the results."

Even Pittsburgh's Long, the man who so far has been in the center of it, said some preliminary steps should be taken before maple bats are banned.

"I think step one is to explore options for keeping moisture in the wood to make them more pliable and potentially less resistant to breaking," he said. "Let's play around with the length-to-weight ratio and see if that makes a difference. Let's start there. And then if they try every conceivable thing and it just doesn't work, then maybe you do have to [ban them]. But that might be a little extreme in the short term."

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.