Maple bat problem not easy to solve

BY Ken Rosenthal • September 21, 2010

Is enough ash wood available for baseball to ban maple bats?

A prominent bat manufacturer says yes. Baseball says no.

The issue, like so much else with the controversy over maple bats, is not as simple as it seems.

Talk of banning maple revived after a piece from a broken bat struck Cubs rookie Tyler Colvin in the upper chest on Sunday, sidelining him for the rest of the season.

Rob Manfred, baseball’s executive vice-president of labor relations, says that eliminating maple is impractical, citing a shortage of high-quality ash.

Rick Redman, vice-president of corporate communications for Louisville Slugger, baseball’s leading bat manufacturer, disputes Manfred’s notion.

“Our timber division and pro bat staff are not in agreement with the statement that there's not enough ash available,” Redman said. “We'd need about six months to ramp up timber harvesting to be able to produce 100 percent ash for MLB.”

Which view is more accurate?

Depends upon your perspective.

Scott Drake, vice president of operations for TECO, an independent wood-certification company working with MLB, says that Louisville Slugger probably could produce enough bats to go 100 percent ash short-term.

But such a move, Drake says, could lead to poorer quality.

“Each wood species has a sweet-spot for what constitutes professional-grade bat quality,” Drake says. “It’s not just how many bats you can produce, its how many professional-grade bats you can produce, and for how long.”

The supply of ash is not endless.

An insect known as emerald ash borer threatens the species.

The insect, Redman says, has killed millions of ash trees, primarily in areas where Louisville Slugger does not harvest timber for bats — Michigan, Indiana, Ohio and other states.

However, it also has been discovered near Louisville Slugger’s primary harvesting areas in Pennsylvania and New York.

Despite the threat, Redman says, “We currently have access to enough high quality northern white ash to provide MLB all the ash bats it would need for the foreseeable future, at least five to 10 years.”

Such a move, though, would not be without risk.

“The concern is if you convert to all ash and the blight spreads to the forests that produce ash, then where are you?” Manfred asks.

Manfred also says that baseball’s independent experts advised him that a ban on maple — and subsequent transition to ash — would require six to eight months to implement.

The sport does not have that kind of time.

Less than four months elapse from the end of the World Series to the start of spring training in Florida and Arizona.

“It would be extremely difficult, if not impossible to get back to all ash,” Manfred says. “It probably would be imprudent to do that even if you get through the eight-month transition period.”

Louisville Slugger has a vested interest in baseball making the switch — it currently holds 55 to 60 percent of the bat market share, Redman says, and that number might increase to 85 to 90 percent if baseball went to all ash, according to a major-league source.

Reed Dickens, CEO of Marucci Sports, a competing company that produces more maple than ash bats, says the comparison between the two woods is beside the point.

“Whether it’s ash, maple or anything else, it’s not about the species of wood. It’s about the density and the geometry of the bats,” Dickens says.

Which is why baseball has taken measures since 2008 to address the quality of maple bats, working with TECO and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service’s Forest Product Laboratory.

The sport has imposed tougher standards on manufacturers and banned certain models in the minors for players who are not members of the major-league union.

The results are encouraging: The number of broken maple bats dropped by approximately 50 percent from the start of ‘08 to the end of ’09, major-league officials say.

The Colvin incident, however, raised fresh concerns about the danger posed by even one broken bat — concerns that elicited an immediate and somewhat misinformed outcry.

A ban on maple at the major-league level only could take place through collective bargaining between MLB and the union. But baseball and its experts believe that the sport cannot solely rely on ash long-term.

“We are going to have to address the ash availability issue at some point,” Drake says. “We have made great strides in understanding and implementing the key criteria for hard maple, and are in the process of developing a test protocol for reviewing other alternatives. Good alternatives do exist if handled properly.”

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