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Knock on Wood

Maybe it's 'Mapleroid,' but this baseball trend is no simple crack of the bat

June 28, 2005|Ross Newhan | Special to The Times

It was in a recent game against the Washington Nationals that Angel first baseman Darin Erstad was confronted by what has become a familiar problem: He could field the distracting and dangerous barrel half of a broken bat spiraling toward him or the ground ball headed for the hole on the right side of the infield.

Erstad hasn't won three Gold Gloves by stacking lumber, so he ducked the bat, fielded the grounder and got the out at first. He later shrugged off the threat posed by the latest flying missile as line-of-duty stuff in a season in which so many bats are breaking that "Splendid Splinter" has taken on new meaning.

"An epidemic," said Angel bench coach Joe Maddon, or as coaching colleague Mickey Hatcher put it:

"It's unbelievable. We're seeing eight to 10 bats break every game. Guys are coming back saying they hit the ball on the sweet spot and it still broke. I don't know if the bats are just too dry or they put the label on the wrong side, but there's an awful lot of firewood being left on the infield every night."

So much firewood that Angel pitcher Jarrod Washburn, dodging it from 60 feet 6 inches, is thinking of asking for hazard pay in his next contract, especially after he shuddered and saw the spiked end of a broken bat stick in the mound during a recent game.

"They're breaking like crazy," Washburn said. "I'm surprised someone hasn't been hurt yet, but it will happen."

What's happening?

Have termites hit the bat market?

Are more bats breaking, or is it a black-lacquered illusion?

Mindful of baseball's steroid infestation, Sam Holman has a one-word summary for the evolving bat scene.

"Mapleroid," said the Sam of SamBat, the Ottawa company that in a short span has become the third-leading supplier of bats to major league players.

All of SamBat's bats are maple.

In a market dominated for more than a century by the white ash of the Hillerich & Bradsby Co.'s Louisville Slugger, still the leading manufacturer of big league bats, maple has cut into the ash stranglehold to the extent that even Hillerich's orders are almost 50-50.

When Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs using a SamBat maple in 2001, there was a stampede by fickle players always looking for an edge.

Of course, Bonds is Bonds.

"It doesn't matter what kind of bat Barry swings," Maddon said. "He's always going to hit the heart of the artichoke. The rest of them get leaves."

True, perhaps, but hitters take a paternalistic approach to their bats, or as Rex Hudler, the Angel analyst who spent 13 years in the big leagues, explained: "I would always put my bats next to those of the team's hottest hitter hoping something would rub off."

"When I was with the Yankees," Hudler said, "Don Mattingly would even take his bats to bed. If his wife complained, he'd tell her, 'Honey, I keep my bats warm at night so that you'll have money to go shopping during the day.' "

Stories are bountiful.

Former Angel shortstop Leo Cardenas was so superstitious that he would put his bats in the trunk of his car and drive through a cemetery at night to ward off the evil spirits of a slump. Ken Griffey Jr. orders a double dipping of lacquer to harden the barrel.

A small number of players were using the harder and more durable maple before Bonds, but those 73 homers -- perhaps chemically aided or not -- triggered a revolution that has contributed to the shattering image of 2005.

No one keeps tab -- official or otherwise -- on the number of broken bats.

Ken Higdon, the Angel equipment manager, said his budget of the last few years hasn't significantly changed. All clubs pay for bats. Higdon said he continues to order about eight dozen per player per season. He doesn't think there's been a significant increase in broken bats.

If the nightly camera suggests otherwise, as skittish infielders duck, dodge and take cover, the widespread and generally unanimous view is that maple simply breaks in a different and more visible way than ash. Thus, because of the significant increase in the number of players using maple bats, it appears that more bats are breaking.

"Maple tends to break in two, and what you see is half of the bat flying across the infield," said Chuck Schupp, Hillerich & Bradsby's director of professional sales. "Ash tends to splinter or flake. It's not always visible from the stands, and a hitter may not realize it's cracked until he gets back to the dugout and looks at it."

Whether maple or ash, two significant factors have contributed to the broken-bat siege.

* Bigger, stronger hitters conditioned to swinging light aluminum bats in high school and college are demanding similarly light wood bats with thin handles and big barrels -- "they often have micro-specific requests that are difficult to produce," Schupp said -- and the combination of bigger hitters/lighter bats is a physics challenge. The 39- to 42-ounce R-43 model Louisville Slugger employed by Babe Ruth? Now, a 32- to 34-ounce bat is about average and maybe slightly heavy.

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