Martin Schram: Baseball must ban its dangerous maple bats now!


Columnist Martin Schram is an MCT op-ed writer. (MCT)

Memo to: Rob Manfred, commissioner, Major League Baseball

CC: Tom Vilsack, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture; America’s baseball fans; parents and grandparents of America’s youngest baseball fans

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Mr. Commissioner, you have an urgent decision to make. It requires no more months of re-evaluation and rethink (see also: delay and pray).

You must outlaw the potentially lethal maple bats that are now used by most hitters — and have been shattering into large, jagged pieces that potentially endanger players and fans in some ballpark almost daily.

You must order a return to the much safer ash bats that worked just fine for Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle when they slugged their thrilling home runs during baseball’s Golden Age. Yes, ash bats cracked and broke; but they didn’t shatter, explode or propel their heavy barrelheads with sword-sharp shards spinning unpredictably.

Last week, a shattered maple bat head helicoptered into the box seats at Boston’s historic Fenway Park. It slammed into the skull of Tonya Carpenter, a mother who brought her 8-year-old son to the game as a special treat. The historic stadium echoed with her shrieks even as her stretcher disappeared down the tunnel, where a waiting ambulance took her to the hospital.

Thankfully, doctors now say Carpenter will survive the horrific injury she suffered. Her condition was upgraded from serious to good.

Shamefully, news about shattering maple bats is old news to Major League Baseball and its fans. In the 1990s, Toronto slugger Joe Carter was the first player to use a maple bat. Some said maple was harder than ash, thus capable of hitting the ball harder. In 2001, Barry Bonds used maple bats (and enhancing, if not empowering, illegal substances, authorities say) when he broke baseball’s single season home run record. Batters rushed to emulate Bonds’ bat choice, if not his other life choices.

Time out: Mr. Commissioner, you need to speak out. You know scientists have proved maple bats provide no power advantage. In 2005, tests at the University of Massachusetts Lowell’sBaseball Research Center showed maple and ash bats produced essentially the same batted-ball speeds. Also, that maple bats are three times likelier to shatter than ash bats.

Yet we have been sadly accepting of real life horrors:

April 15, 2008: At Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, a batter’s maple bat shattered, the sharp barrelhead flew into the visitors’ dugout, smashed into Pittsburgh Pirates coach Don Long’s face and severed his cheek muscle and nerves.

Just 10 days later: Susan Rhodes, a fan, was sitting four rows behind that same Dodger dugout when another maple bat shattered. The barrelhead fractured her jaw in two places. Surgeons inserted four screws and a titanium plate. She has never fully recovered.

Sept. 19, 2010: In Miami, the Chicago Cubs’Tyler Colvin was on third base when a teammate’s bat shattered and the bat head’s jagged point impaled his chest, inches from his heart, ending his season.

At that point, Major League Baseball formed a unique and impressive alliance — with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Secretary Vilsack arranged for U.S. Forestry Service experts, funded by MLB, to analyze thousands of broken bats to learn if maple bats can be made safer.

The Forest Products Laboratory produced impressive results: The key is the slope of the woodgrain. Straighter, bolder grains, produced by rounder capillaries, mean bats shatter less often. Ash has a large grain that is easily formed into straight lines. Maple has thin grains, spidery capillaries, and is less substantial. In 2013 Vilsack announced with understandable pride that his department’s experts helped baseball use higher density maple bats that shattered 50 percent less often than before.

But there’s another way to interpret those results. Namely: even with the best maple bats, disastrous accidents will inevitably occur — just less often. Did that painful reality somehow elude your predecessor, then-Commissioner Bud Selig? By the way, did it also escape Selig’s right hand man (that was you)?

You must now decide whether you really want MLB to bear responsibility as an accomplice or facilitator, merely through its inaction, if the next exploding maple bat leads to a tragedy.

Mr. Commissioner, on Monday, it was encouraging to hear you tell reporters: “You have to react strongly to an incident like this.” But then you began praising MLB for all it has done on bat safety. You promised only that MLB will reevaluate its position on bat safety.

Perhaps you ought to just drop by that Boston hospital and visit Tonya Carpenter and her young son. Ask if they think there’s something that requires more reevaluation.

Mr. Commissioner, ban those dangerous maple bats now. All players will learn to live with your decision. And some players or fans will surely live because of it.

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