MLB, union meet over maple bats

MLB, union meet over maple bats

The recent explosion -- literally -- of maple bats has forced representatives from Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association to evaluate the threat of injury, and the first step toward a resolution took place on Tuesday.

The Safety and Health Advisory Committee held its first meeting today via conference call in New York to discuss player and fan safety, including the danger of being hit with remnants of a broken bat. Members of the committee, which includes a mix of players as well as executives from MLB, individual clubs and the players' union, expressed their concerns over the issues and concurred that they require prompt consideration and action.

The Safety and Health Advisory Committee formalized the next steps, which include consulting with bat manufacturers and experts in the field, conducting field studies, conducting laboratory tests of bats and gathering information about protective measures in Major League ballparks.

This year, maple bats are shattering at an alarming rate, sending bits and pieces of sharp wood in every direction -- putting players, coaches, managers, umpires and fans in danger.

Two recent cases specifically have moved the committee to act. Pirates hitting coach Don Long was in the visitors' dugout on the first-base side of Dodger Stadium on April 15 and was hit with a piece of Nate McLouth's shattered bat. The wood struck Long below the left eye, bloodying his cheek and requiring 10 stitches to close the wound. Long said he lost feeling near the left corner of his mouth and couldn't smile on that side of his face.

Ten days later, a fan at Dodger Stadium was hit by the barrel of a maple bat used by Colorado's Todd Helton that shattered her jaw.

On Tuesday, plate umpire Brian O'Nora was hit in the forehead by the barrel of Miguel Olivo's bat -- which had shattered -- and had to leave the game between the Rockies and Royals at Kauffman Stadium. Royals athletic trainer Nick Swartz reported that O'Nora suffered a small laceration of the forehead and was taken to St. Luke's Hospital for treatment.

Fans are encouraged to be aware of foul balls, which often sail into the stands at blazing speeds, but most fans are not used to using the same caution when a piece of a bat goes flying.


"When a maple bat dies, it's a spectacular occurrence, whereas an ash bat slips gently into its good night."
-- Astros first baseman
Lance Berkman

It's unlikely that maple bats are shattering at a more rapid pace than is past years, but the recent rash of serious injuries resulting from broken bats has forced baseball officials to take a closer look.

Potential remedies include extending netting behind the plate down the first- and third-base lines as they do in Japanese ballparks, placing restrictions on the width of bat handles and banning the use of maple bats completely.

Members of the committee will meet again this week to commence the data gathering process. The committee intends to issue recommendations as quickly as possible after all relevant information is gathered and analyzed.

Committee members have been instructed to not speak publicly about Tuesday's conference call, but one insider familiar with the discussions acknowledged that the group agrees that baseball has a safety issue.

The Royals' John Buck, a committee member, expressed that sentiment during an interview with MLB.com last week.

"We're not using anything that's illegal, but there has to be something done to protect people, especially the fans," he said. "Because our seats are getting closer and closer and closer and not only do the bats fly out but the balls fly out, too. And attendance is going up everywhere."

The majority of Major Leaguers use maple bats, but many prefer bats made of ash. Houston's Lance Berkman is a fan of the latter, although he fears if maple bats are banned, it will dilute the supply of good ash bats.

Berkman said ash bats are "less treacherous, all the way around," adding that when a maple bat breaks, it's a much more violent act than that of an ash bat, which has more of a flaky feel when it meets its demise.

"A maple bat can have a crack in it that you don't know about, and all of a sudden, you hit a ball on the barrel and it explodes," he said. "An ash bat is true. You can always tell if there's something wrong with it."

Berkman uses maple bats for batting practice, but switches to ash, which don't have as long of a shelf life, for games.

"I just prefer the ash," he said. "It bends a little more than maple. I like the feel of the ball coming off the bat. When a maple bat dies, it's a spectacular occurrence, whereas ash bats slip gently into its good night."

Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.