Maple presents a hard problem

Jeff Passan
Yahoo! Sports

Todd Helton swings an ash wood Mizuno bat covered in a glossy black lacquer. In late April, it wasn't feeling right, so he grabbed teammate Troy Tulowitzki's bat for one reason.

"It was white," said Helton, the Colorado Rockies first baseman, "and I was switching just to switch."

His temporary melanophobia triggered the chain of events that led to Major League Baseball's Safety and Health Advisory Committee meeting Wednesday morning about how to handle the burgeoning issue of maple wood bats breaking.

In Helton's case, Tulowitzki's bat, made of maple wood, snapped at the handle and catapulted into the stands at Dodger Stadium, where it broke the jaw of a Los Angeles-area woman, Susan Rhodes. It was the second such incident in 10 days, following the sharp end of a broken bat slicing the face of Pittsburgh Pirates hitting coach Don Long.

And Wednesday night, just hours after the committee's meeting, home-plate umpire Brian O'Nora suffered a deep gash across his face that caused blood to gush after a broken maple bat from Kansas City catcher Miguel Olivo cut him.

MLB, which for nearly six weeks has gathered broken-bat samples from around the major leagues, assembled the committee for the first time to dream up a maple balancing act that would satisfy players and ensure safety. The plans for now, announced in a release, include conversations with maple bat manufacturers, further laboratory tests on the bats and continued studies on the game-used bats that do shatter.

The committee, comprised of personnel from MLB, the MLB Players Association, Mets pitcher Aaron Heilman and Royals catcher John Buck, will meet again this week to discuss the best methods to compile data.

Though neither side offered further comment, sources said the likelihood of any change in the rules before the end of the season was extremely unlikely, even though, in the release, the committee said it would "issue recommendations as quickly as possible."

Potential solutions are manifold, though none will satisfy all parties. Players will vehemently oppose an outright ban on maple bats, with more than 50 percent using them regularly despite being introduced only a decade ago. The prospect of protective nets surrounding the field could bother fans and wouldn't do anything to protect players. Having a central bat inspector – one who would stamp bats OK before they get shipped to players – could prove cost prohibitive and ineffective.

And one idea that seems a happy medium, changing the dimensions of the bat – whether to a larger minimum handle size (currently 16/19th of an inch), smaller length-to-weight ratio (minus-3.5, meaning a 34-inch bat must weigh at least 30.5 ounces) or smaller barrel (2¾ inches) – would chafe some players, too.

"You can't switch with a guy's handle," said Helton, who uses a 34-inch, 32-ounce model. "No. Nooo. I don't care what they think. It doesn't matter if handles are too thin. You can't switch it. That's how he's feeling the bat. That's his connection with the bat."

Players' connections with maple got baseball into this mess. When Barry Bonds broke the single-season home run record in 2001 using a maple bat, players glommed onto them, claiming they felt harder. Recently, the amount of breakage has some manufacturers such as Sam Holman, who made the first maple bat, questioning whether the quality has dipped with more than 30 companies now licensed to sell them. Others are trying to capitalize, like a retired professor who claims to make unbreakable bats from African wood.

For now, MLB is sending its samples to Jim Sherwood, who runs the Baseball Research Center at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell and conducted a test in 2005 that showed maple provides no greater performance off the bat than ash but does break differently, snapping instead of cracking. And, as Helton said, "If they find out maple bats are the reason we have more broken bats, they probably ought to switch it. Honestly, I could care (less) either way."

Though Helton does remember his first encounter with maple in the field, and it nearly went as bad as his first time using it at the plate.

"I always saw bats flying at guys and saw them missing the ball and thought, 'How can you not catch the ball?' " Helton said. "Then it happened to me. And it's very tough. You get out of the way, or you get hit."

Actually, that about sums up baseball's predicament with maple bats. And it can only hope it avoids those hits until it finds a solution.

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