The maple tree, provider of syrup and a particularly hard wood, also is bearing something far more unnatural: money.
Maple went commercial this week when a broken baseball bat helicoptered into Chicago Cubs base-runner Tyler Colvin(notes) and punctured him in the chest, a stomach-turning incident that ended in a hospital stay. The visual was a public parallel to the ugly behind-the-scenes fight over safety that has turned into a money grab, wrapped the entire issue in red tape and endangered fans and players.
Everybody involved wants a piece of the maple-bat-solution pie. There are brothers Steve and Phil Rauso, who have created a product called the Bat Glove that, preliminary testing shows, keeps the splintered barrels of broken maple from flying at players and fans. And then there is the Rawlings baseball equipment company, whose own study of the Bat Glove cast doubt on its efficacy and posited that the product could end up harming players.
Caught in the middle is Major League Baseball, already dealing with its own money problem: James Falzon, a fan struck in the face with a bat barrel at Shea Stadium in 2007, filed the first lawsuit against MLB seeking injury damages for a maple-related incident.
MLB says it wants to solve the problem. The Rauso brothers say they want to solve the problem. Rawlings presumably wants to solve the problem, too, though messages left with the company went unreturned.
And here we are, nearly 10 years after Barry Bonds popularized the maple bat, the problem still unsolved.
MLB and the players' association found themselves in a compromised position last December when they were considering the implementation of the Bat Glove, nothing more than a piece of polymeric tape manufactured by 3M that is wrapped along the bat's handle to the 18-inch mark and purports to keep the bat together amid breakage.
The Rauso brothers paid for a study at the UMass-Lowell Baseball Research Center, which concluded the Bat Glove "could significantly reduce the number of multi-piece bat failures when applied to maple bats." They also wrapped bats for a number of teams to test the Bat Glove in minor league games. Chris Guth, manager of the Rangers' minor league complex, said in an email that the product was a "neat idea and concept" and "seemed to work well."
Rawlings disagreed. The company's study raised a concern of "tethering" – the bat breaking, then snapping back and hitting the batter, catcher or umpire. Though the Rauso brothers have tried to discredit the Rawlings study, the company sent it to David Kretschmann, the league's independent analyst at the Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wis., who told MLB to continue testing before verifying the Bat Glove for in-game use.
While the Rausos have told the blog site "It's About the Money" and other media outlets that baseball had certified the Bat Glove for use in 2010, MLB said it never even proposed the product to its Safety and Health Advisory Committee. Still, Steve Rauso called the conflict obvious: Rawlings is MLB's second biggest bat manufacturer, behind Louisville Slugger, and he said it wanted exclusivity on the Bat Glove. He declined to sell the product, which is currently patent pending and could be applied en masse, he said, "for less than a hot dog – $5."
"I think I'm viewed as a threat," Rauso said. "If I can build a more durable bat, why would bat manufacturers want to adopt something that would cause them to sell less bats? That's not the avenue we want to take with it.
"I want this stuff on there so we don't ever have to find out who the first fatality is going to be in the stands. For me, it's a matter of life and death. If money comes from it, that's fine."
Bat Glove's study at UMass-Lowell, which cost the Rausos $11,000, showed no signs of tethering, though it tested only 10 bats.
"Anything is possible," Rauso said. "If it happens one in 1,000 times and it happens, that's 999 other times it didn't. Does it improve the conditions on the field? Absolutely. Is it 100 percent? I'd say no. But it's more than 99, I'd say."
MLB said it has reduced the number of catastrophic maple breaks by 50 percent since 2009, when it instituted new rules regarding the quality of the wood used and the slope of the wood's grain. Baseball spends more than $500,000 a year to track bat breakage, said Dan Halem, the league's point-man on the issue, and has issued fines and other warnings to companies whose bats have exploded the most.
"We'll spend as much money as necessary to fix this," Halem said.
Whether that includes a settlement for the Falzon case is unlikely. MLB filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit in New York County court, said Falzon's lawyer, William Maniatis, on the grounds that fans are warned of risks including flying bats on the backs of tickets as well as over the public-address speaker. Maniatis will challenge the motion and said another person in Florida has contacted him about filing suit against MLB.
Gruesome injuries from flying bat barrels are nothing new, though Falzon's step of suing MLB, the New York Mets, the player who swung the bat (Luis Castillo(notes)) and the one who owned it (Ramon Castro(notes)) is beyond the typical legal action against the bat manufacturer.
"If this was a case where Jim was sitting down by home plate, or if he got hit by a baseball, I wouldn't talk to him," Maniatis said. "But the guy's sitting up the line. It's not like he's not paying attention. He was watching Castillo's ball go into the outfield. If you're paying attention to the game, you shouldn't get injured – not like this."
Colvin can attest. He was trotting down the third-base line, watching the ball off Welington Castillo's(notes) bat loop into the outfield, when the maple from Phoenix Bats struck him in the left chest. It didn't impale him like a vampire, and he didn't suffer a collapsed lung, and hyperbole ensconced the Colvin incident.
The reality, however, was evident: A flying bat made of maple – or ash, a bat less likely to break catastrophically – can kill someone, and Colvin was lucky it wasn't him.
"If another product comes out that works better and is more cost effective, use it," Rauso said. "But right now, this is the answer."
So because MLB can't ban maple – the Emerald Ash Borer, a destructive beetle, has rendered the ash supply insufficient for supplying all of baseball – it plans on testing the Bat Glove this offseason to determine whether the tethering concern is legitimate. If it pasts muster in the laboratory tests, it could be implemented during the Arizona Fall League or in winter ball. Should it prove effective there, Halem said, MLB would consider implementing it.
Such a test could've taken place earlier this year, Steve Rauso said. Rawlings was willing to donate the laboratory time. MLB was willing to buy the bats from the Old Hickory Bat Company. The plan was for a 130-bat study. Rauso said Rawlings sent him the testing protocol, and he felt the test was written to ensure the Bat Glove's failure. He refused to wrap the bats and would not spend the $50,000 out of pocket he said running the test at UMass-Lowell would cost.
More red tape – which, as usual, is laced with green. And more danger to players and fans by an issue that should've been solved long ago.