Baseball at breaking point over maple bats

Someone's going to die at a baseball stadium soon.

Might be a player. Could be an umpire. Possibly even a fan.

It almost was a coach.

The scar on Don Long's left cheek still puffs around the edges, fresh enough that it looks like a misplaced zipper instead of the mark of someone who lived too hard. Like every scar, this one has a story, and it involves a piece of shattered wood, about two pounds heavy, that tomahawked 30 feet before slicing through his face.

Nate McLouth thought he just missed the sweet spot of the bat. It was April 15, the eighth inning, and the Pittsburgh Pirates were getting pummeled at Dodger Stadium. Long, the Pirates' hitting coach, milled about the dugout until he heard McLouth hammer Esteban Loaiza's 0-2 pitch. Long looked up and tracked the ball down the right-field line. He had no idea baseball's greatest weapon was headed right at him, and that had he been positioned an inch to the left or right, he might not be here to talk about it.

About two or three times a game. players swinging bats made of maple wood end up with kindling in their hands while the barrel – blunt and thick on one end, splintered and sharp on the other – flies every which direction. Pitchers and middle infielders stand in the greatest line of fire and do their best acrobat imitations to avoid the remnants. On occasion, the shard will land in the stands and harm a fan. And sometimes, as it did in the case of Long, it will wind up in the dugout.

"Didn't see it at all," Long said. "It just hit me. I backed up. I saw the blood coming out on the card I keep and on my shoes."

The Pirates' training staff rushed Long into the clubhouse to stop the bleeding. The bat sliced through the muscle in his cheek, catching nerves in its wake. A piece broke off and lodged under his skin. A doctor needed to remove the stray wood before he could sew 10 stitches.

When McLouth ended up on second base, he wondered why so many people were scurrying around the dugout. He ran to first with three inches of wood in his hands. He couldn't find the other 30 or so, when it occurred to him: the ruckus was over his bat, the maple that was barely seen in baseball before 2001, when Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs using one. Now, about 50 percent of players use maple.

"They're great," McLouth said, "except for that."

The incidents keep happening, and following Mike Coolbaugh's death last season when a batted ball struck him in the neck while he was coaching first base in a minor league game, neither Major League Baseball nor the MLB Players Association can afford to wait for another tragedy when it could take preventative measures. Were officials from either party to meet with Long and see his face, they would understand the issue must be resolved immediately.

"When I blow my nose out of this side," Long said, "I have to look in the mirror and make sure nothing's hanging there because I can't really feel what's happening.

"Could've been a lot worse. Could've hit me in the eye."

Long tried to smile. The right side of his mouth perked up. The left side didn't move.

In 2005, alarmed by the increasing number of broken bats, baseball gave $109,000 to a man named Jim Sherwood and asked him to compare maple bats with the ash ones that used to be the norm. Sherwood runs the Baseball Research Center at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, and the conclusion of the study did not jibe with the hundreds of players who swear maple leads to better performance.

"We found that the batted-ball speeds were essentially the same for the two woods," Sherwood said. "Maple has no advantage in getting a longer hit over an ash bat."

The study also found something evident to anyone watching baseball: Ash bats crack while maple bats snap.

Even so, something about the maple bats caused a frenzy. Sam Holman, who started the Original Maple Bat company out of Canada to give players an alternative to the softer ash, supplied Bonds with his first maple in 1999. Word spread, and soon Sam Bats, as they're called, showed up across baseball. Chuck Schupp, the director of professional sales at Hillerich & Bradsby, the parent company for Louisville Slugger, saw the abundance of Sam Bats in clubhouses and urged his company to join the maple fray. More than 20 bat makers now are licensed to sell maple bats for about $65 a pop, compared to $45 for ash bats, and the demand isn't lessening.

"I feel like they're harder," McLouth said. "Whether or not that's scientifically true, I'm not sure. But psychologically, I feel like they are."

Players love their bats irrationally. Ichiro Suzuki keeps his in a silver case. Kosuke Fukudome weighs his to the gram. Jeff Cirillo slept with his. Some talk to them, kiss them, massage them. Anything to keep them happy.

So when in 2006 MLB broached the issue of maple bats during the collective-bargaining negotiations, it did not go well. The union wasn't receptive to a unilateral ban and didn't budge at the thought of at least imposing specifications to lessen the likelihood of breakage.

MLB scoffed at putting nets in front of the seats closest to the field, as the NHL did after a stray puck struck and killed 13-year-old Brittanie Cecil. The discussions went nowhere quickly, and it ended with them agreeing to table the issue until a later date. Both sides spent the next year focusing on the Mitchell Report, and only after the Long incident did they revisit it.

"We have provisions in the agreement," union leader Don Fehr said Thursday by phone. "There will be a committee that will be put together and meet on it. We'll look at it in good faith."

Said Rob Manfred, MLB's lead labor counsel, in a statement through a spokesman: "Baseball is aware of the bat issue. We have done scientific research in the area. We brought the issue to the bargaining table in 2006 and we are embarking on a detailed consideration of the issue with the union in the context of the Safety and Health Advisory Committee."

When that happens, the thickening of the bat handle seems the likeliest compromise. Sherwood said the study showed that as the size of the handle increases, the potential for broken bats decreases. Players might object to thicker handles because they add weight, and every 10th of an ounce counts.

An outright ban is unlikely to muster union support, and it would be a logistical nightmare: Schupp said Hillerich & Bradsby would need at least 18 months to fill the orders of ash bats for all their clients.

Though, as one union source noted, after long struggles the players agreed to add earflaps onto helmets and ban amphetamines. If MLB is insistent enough, and perhaps willing to sacrifice something in return, the players might agree to forgo maple.

"I do not anticipate players will jump up and down and say, 'You can take our bats away right away,' " the union source said. "If that's backlash, I do expect some, yeah. Players may say, 'Aren't there other things you can do first?' "

Yes, though sources said MLB, while not sold on an outright ban, will push for one. The day after Long was hit, officials received video of the McLouth at-bat from multiple angles. One particularly gruesome shot came from a field-level camera pointed toward the dugout.

That afternoon, MLB officials contacted the union to set up a meeting to discuss maple bats.

All last season, Jorge Posada encouraged New York Yankees teammate Doug Mientkiewicz to switch from maple to ash. Mientkiewicz was tired of his bats breaking.

"They blow up constantly," said Mientkiewicz, a first baseman now with the Pirates.

He had seen his bats shatter and heard stories, like the one where Eric Byrnes, angry after a bad at-bat, slammed his maple into the ground and saw its shrapnel hit catcher Miguel Olivo in the head.

Outspoken voices are beginning to emerge. Pirates manager John Russell and Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon have called them "dangerous," and Mientkiewicz said it was "amazing" that one hasn't struck and injured a player.

"It's going to take somebody getting severely hurt to think about a change," Mientkiewicz said. "Anybody who thinks I'm overreacting should go look at our hitting coach's face. It was spooky. It was really spooky."

Doctors predict the nerves in Long's face will regenerate and he'll be able to smile again. He's not calling for an outright ban on maple, either, because he understands how particular and superstitious players can be.

Look at McLouth. A 26-year-old who hadn't finished a season with more than 329 at-bats, he ranks fourth in the National League in slugging percentage and is on target to make his first All-Star appearance.

No one would blame him for not changing his underwear, let alone the tool he uses to get his hits.

"I'm thinking about maybe trying ash again," said McLouth, sitting in the clubhouse at Nationals Park last week, holding his maple bat, flexing his wrists, taking quarter swings. "I mean, just thinking about it. Because I swear, ever since I broke the bat that day in Dodger Stadium, it seems like, as a team, we've broken three or four bats a day."

That afternoon, against the Nationals, on the third pitch of the game, McLouth's bat split. The bat boy ran out to retrieve the refuse, returned from the dugout with a new one and handed it to McLouth, who walked back to home plate with his weapon of choice.