Maple-bat backlash bothers Sam Bat pioneer

The first maple bat was made on a bar bet in 1996. An old scout named Bill McKenzie was lamenting the frequency with which bats made of ash wood were breaking, and he wondered if his friend and drinking buddy Sam Holman could do anything about it.

Holman dabbled in carpentry and figured maple wood, so much harder than ash, might work. A year later, after countless hours spent inside a library poring through patent archives, the Original Maple Bat Corporation was born – as was a controversy that wouldn’t surface until this year.

How maple bats went from players’ most treasured piece of equipment to one facing a potential ban when Major League Baseball meets June 24 to discuss their danger is distressing to Holman. He wants to stick up for the bats’ quality to counter the growing public perception that the wood frequently snaps at the handle and sends two-sided weapons – one end thick and blunt, the other sharp and jagged – hurtling every which way.

Only he can’t. Holman believes that with the demand for maple bats, newcomers to the industry – from small companies to leviathans – have compromised it by putting out inferior products.

“The standard that I set is not being met,” Holman said. “I know that we make every effort to put out the straightest-grain, best bat we can.

“I can’t speak for what others do. My dad was a veterinarian at one time. He said old horsemen do strange things to young horses. The only people that can tell you what’s going on in the field of play is Major League Baseball itself. If anyone knows what’s breaking, where’s breaking, who’s breaking, it’s Roy Krasik.”

Krasik is MLB’s senior director of baseball operations, and he is compiling data on broken bats throughout baseball. Krasik declined comment through a spokesman, who added that MLB would not release any data on bats – which manufacturer’s products break more often, why they break, how they break – until, at earliest, the June 24 meeting with baseball’s safety and healthy advisory committee, made up of representatives from both MLB and the players’ association.

MLB’s reticence to make the information public is curious, especially in light of Holman’s assertions. Already it has seen Pittsburgh Pirates hitting coach Don Long get sliced across the left side of his face with a bat shard that flew into the dugout. Ten days later, a bat flew into the stands at Dodger Stadium and broke the jaw of a fan, Susan Rhodes, sitting in the fourth row. She is considering suing the Dodgers and the maker of the bat, Rawlings.

Even the slightest confirmation would help comfort Holman, who considers the maple bat his baby and cringes at the attack on its reputation. His company’s product bears his name – they’re called Sam Bats – and he orders nearly all his rock maple wood from the same company, which provided the logs from which Barry Bonds’ bats in his record 73-home run season were carved.

Part of the issue, Holman said, is the quality of the wood. He buys maple veneer logs with one or two knots, around which his employees can saw. They cost between $1,500 and $2,000 a log and provide between 28 and 30 bats, he said. The best wood, the no-fault log that would provide absolute top-quality bats, costs between $5,000 and $6,000.

“If they want safe bats built to a high standard, they should take the lead and the $200 bat should be a common thing,” said Holman, whose bats cost $120. “If they think that’s too much, they should take a look at the price of hockey stick.”

Thin bat handles also concern Holman. He said he never makes bats with handles less than 7/8 of an inch thick. Still, he understands that even though maple is a hard wood, determined players will shave down the handles to get an extra tenth of an ounce of weight off the bat while retaining the prodigious barrel.

“People forget, it’s like driving down I-90 at 120 mph and hitting every car you see head on – that’s what a bat does every day,” Holman said. “I’m confident if all maple bats were made to our standard, this wouldn’t be as much of a problem.

“The trouble with making a wooden bat is you can’t explain when it’s going to break. Nobody’s got a guarantee on wooden bats and probably never will. I know it’s going to be broken. Every bat I send to baseball is destined for destruction.”

The inevitability is chilling to Holman. He believes in the maple bat, and players still do, too, with more than 30 companies peddling them, and about 17,000 Sam Bats sold each year.

The company is on stable footing after taking on investors last year. Holman, who is semi-retired, tried to sell Sam Bats on eBay two years ago for $3.5 million – the warehouse, patents and 888 number included – but received no bids. Cash poor despite a $1.5 million-a-year business, he needed a bailout from none other than Bonds, who wrote a check for $40,000 to ensure he would have his favorite bats as he marched toward the all-time home run record.

Holman’s creation almost went the way of the Sansabelt because of financial issues. He doesn’t want to see the same because of safety concerns.

He hopes MLB puts up netting to protect fans, institutes a minimum handle size or creates a central office to inspect bats and approve them.

Anything but banning maple outright.

“I was asked to solve a broken-bat problem,” Holman said. “In my heart and soul I know I’ve done that.”

Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, Jun 12, 2008