It looked and sounded like a routine hard-hit line drive toward shortstop, struck by a member of the Modesto Nuts during a game last Tuesday against Bakersfield.
But half the bat — the barrel — went screaming end-over-end in the other direction. It was roughly a 24-inch, 26-ounce pointed projectile, hurtling toward a group of eight children sitting in the front row at John Thurman Field.
Fortunately, the bat was cradled by the netting that surrounds the seating area behind home plate. So many fans followed the flight of the bat, as evidenced by their collective gasp and sigh when it found the net, they failed to notice the ball flying into left-center field for a single.
Broken-bat scenes have become increasingly common at all levels of professional baseball — a rise that parallels the increase in popularity of the maple bat. Hardly a game goes by, whether on television or in the California League, in which at least one broken maple bat doesn't leave its pointed remains sticking in the infield grass.
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To put it simply, traditional ash bats crack. Maple bats explode, and over the last six years, maple has become the preferred wood of Major League Baseball. Just last year, it surpassed ash for the first time, according to MLB.com, and this season 60 percent of all major leaguers are swinging maple.
There's a reason. Maple bats provide a harder hitting surface than ash bats and don't visibly wear down with use, as do ash bats.
But therein rests the danger, and safety issue. When an ash bat wears, the barrel gets taped up and it's thrown into use as a batting practice bat. Maple bats crack on the inside, where the wear is hidden — unknown until the bat gives up its structural integrity on impact, often in a violent manner.
"A bat is meant to last only so long," said Modesto Nuts catcher Michael McKenry, who has a contract to use bats supplied by a maple bat company. "Both will break if you hit them on the wrong spot. All in all, maple is a better bat that will last longer in general."
Holding the remains
McKenry had an interesting maple moment Saturday, when he made solid contact with a pitch and drove it to the warning track in left field. As he ran toward first base, he tossed aside an eight-inch piece of kindling. The rest of the bat went flying toward third base like an airborne medieval lance.
"I hit that ball well, right on the barrel," McKenry said. "It must have been cracked on the inside."
The safety issue, however, isn't which bat is more durable, it's how the bats react when they're broken. And the frequency in which maple bats have sent daggers of wood shooting into the infield or — worse — the crowd has been so great it's been under study by Major League Baseball for at least four years.
According to Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports, MLB is so concerned with the issue of exploding maple bats that it had negotiators bring up the idea of banning them during 2006 collective bargaining agreement negotiations.
Last week, an MLB team executive confirmed all teams have been asked to chart every broken bat and report back with the type of bat used and the spray pattern of its remains.
No one has to convince Pittsburgh Pirates coach Don Long about the danger of exploding maple. On April 15, while standing in the dugout at Dodger Stadium, Long was following the flight of a double to right field off the bat of Pirate Nate McLouth.
Long didn't hear the maple bat break, and he didn't see the danger coming his way. A jagged piece of the bat hit Long in the left cheek, slicing a muscle and damaging nerves. Once the fragments were removed, Long was left with a nasty gash, 10 stitches and temporary facial paralysis.
That story sounds just about right to Nuts hitting coach Duane Espy, who had the same post with the San Diego Padres from 2000-02, and with Colorado from 2003-06.
"When I coached in San Diego, I saw a maple bat explode with a big chunk of it flying over a dugout and sticking in a fan's arm," Espy said. "When ash bats break, they might break in half, but they don't explode into shards. Maple bats become javelins. They always end up with a severe point. It's very rare for an ash bat to break like that."
So why use maple bats? At the minor-league level, part of the answer is economic in nature. Maple bats are about $60 each, while ash bats cost about $40, and most players are taking hundreds of non-game swings a day in the cage or during batting practice.
"Maple is more durable," said Nuts outfielder Jay Cox, who switches between ash and maple during games. "Maple lasts longer for us. In spring training, hitting with ash, I noticed the bats would come apart with the grain. I hit a lot, so I'd go through seven or eight ash bats and would still be hitting with the same maple bat.
"As a minor-league player making peanuts, it's a money issue. You can buy two ash bats for the price of one maple, but if I'm going through seven ash bats for every maple, I'd rather be buying the maple."
Teammate Cole Garner, who also uses maple and ash, agrees with Cox.
"I use maple bats because they last longer," Garner said. "If you get blown up, the bat is going to fly, but it's not a projectile break every time. Maybe an infielder or pitcher may be afraid of the way these bats break, but how often do these broken bats hit someone?"
All seem to agree that in a game situation, poor contact is going to cause a bat to break, no matter the type of tree from which it came.
"I see a lot more bats just blowing up, and when they blow like that I know it's a maple bat," said Ron Gideon, Colorado's roving field coordinator. "In spring training this year, a lot more of the minor-league kids had them and they were snapping right and left. It doesn't look to me like they last longer in games."
Other players prefer maple because they believe the harder surface equates to greater ball speed as it leaves the bat. However, a 2005 study conducted at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, commissioned by MLB, found no significant difference in ball exit speed from ash to maple.
Yet if a player believes he's swinging a superior bat, it boosts his confidence in the same way a 15-handicap golfer has confidence in his new $500 driver over the $150 club it replaced. And confidence is empowering, whether you're facing a 95 mph fastball or standing on the tee at a 600-yard par 5.
"What the batters think is way more important than the reality," Espy said. "But I think the reality is that there is a danger with the maple bats. I'm blown away sometimes at how far the piece of bat — the barrel with a point on it, a spear — can fly. Eventually, something will happen and a change will have to be made."
That's the way sports traditionally have reacted. It took the death of 13-year-old Brittanie Cecil in 2002 in Columbus, Ohio, to force the NHL to hoist tall nets behind its goals. NASCAR mandated neck restraints in response to the death of Dale Earnhardt.
And baseball itself, this year, has forced base coaches to wear helmets following the death last July of Tulsa first-base coach Mike Coolbaugh.
Maple bats already have been identified and acknowledged as a potential danger in baseball, a danger above and beyond what is presented by ash bats. To baseball's credit, it continues to study and monitor the situation.
Baseball was lucky when Pirates coach Don Long wasn't killed last month by an exploding maple bat.
Maybe baseball will get lucky again and decide to ban maple bats before its luck runs out.
Bee staff writer Brian VanderBeek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2300.