GIMME A BREAK
Flying shards of maple are no substitute for home plate collisions, but they will have to do
When Major League Baseball decided to do away with violent home plate collisions, it was good news for Buster Posey?s left leg, but shortened the list of exciting plays baseball photographers root for ? impartially so, of course. To be sure, baseball still has exciting plays to offer its fans, not the least of which is an exploding bat when the contact point is far off the sweet spot cleaving off fragments of wood as well as smaller debris. This is a visually spectacular event, but mostly harmless, unless Roger Clemens is there to pick up one of the pieces. The pieces are usually numerous and vaguely reminiscent of a race car that shatters after hitting a wall ? minus the trauma incurred by the driver ? as its component parts disperse in every which way imaginable. Though less dramatic than the race car or even the exploding cigar, the bat breaking is sure to get everyone?s attention. Hearing the crowd react in a concert of ooohs is not uncommon. Fans see a violent flurry of something they recognize immediately to be unexpected and spectacle-worthy, namely wood erupting, but have not had enough time to process it all until the pieces scatter and land all over the infield.
Bats break so easily these days that, any game now, I fully expect to see a Louisville Slugger disintegrate into small chunks of ash as the batter squares around and attempts to lay down a sacrifice bunt. It?s not entirely out of the question, but does make you wonder exactly how Roy Hobbs? ?Wonderboy? could possibly endure almost an entire season of professional baseball in which it crushed many long home runs, including one or two off the clock tower. This indestructible gem-like instrument stayed with Hobbs through his boyhood and all the way up to a one-game playoff at the end of the Knights’ regular season when ‘Wonderboy’ finally met its demise. I know Sal Maglie pitched during that era so don?t tell me pitchers didn?t pitch inside in those days. To survive that many swings, ?Wonderboy? had to have been made from a rare combination of hickory and kevlar, I surmise.
The baseball bat, with its shiny wooden surface, does seem sturdy and firm enough. We know it has to be quite solid to be able to launch a baseball into orbit, but it is no match when it meets with a fast-moving baseball that lands on the much thinner and far more vulnerable handle. Not long afterwards, that same handle resembles a velociraptor’s toothpick after the barrel is torn asunder. When this happens, the momentary drama is two-fold: 1) the bat fracturing is a departure from the usual so it gets noticed, and 2) the fielders, especially the pitcher and corner infielders, have to be on their toes as a piece of the bat goes spinning out of control in their direction cutting through space rather unpredictably. What makes this play kind of trippy is that the flying piece of the bat could easily interfere with a fielder?s ability to make a play on the ball.
Inside fastballs, which are known to partition a baseball bat into two or more pieces, may be the obvious culprit, but the transition from ash bats to maple bats in the early 2000s is actually the more accurate explanation. Maple bats are more prone to breaking than ash, but because maple is a higher-density wood, the ball really jumps off a maple bat and is therefore the preferred choice of hitters who like to mash. See, contact hitters or scrawny singles hitters with slight builds who are content to move the runner over from first base to second may not find the allure of maple bats as great as the dude chasing history who wants to deposit every hanging curveball he sees into the upper deck in St. Louis . . . even if the game is being played in Cleveland.
The added pop that comes from a maple twig likely means maple bats will remain popular and that we?ll continue to see lots of shattered bats at rates comparable to broken chairs in bar fights, which suits me just fine. However, in an age when anything deemed harmful is banned summarily ? from dodgeball to tackling in football likely within the decade ? the MLB brass is in a bit of a bind since the only solution to the broken-bat epidemic is an aluminum bat, which is sure to cause more damage than it is intended to eradicate. Bats would no longer splinter, but probably add another 20mph to take-off speeds after contact is made ? how do I know this ? . . . well, I don?t, but it seems to make sense. C?mon, this is SewerBall ? did you actually think I conduct lab experiments here to back up my points ? But let?s take, for instance, the foul ball. I?m not talking about the lazy, parabolic foul pop up that takes five seconds to land. No, no. I?m talking about the shot down the third base line. That baseball which hurtles towards fans in line-drive fashion off a wooden bat would for all intents and purposes be turned into a rocket-propelled grenade(without the chemicals) were it discharged from the barrel of an aluminum bat, especially one swung by a meaty slugger well trained in the art of bashing.
So would plexi glass keep the fans safe ? Maybe, but this would transform ballparks into enormous aquariums effectively sealing the fans off from the players forever. And what of the poor pitcher as he follows through after releasing the ball towards home plate ? Yeah, he would need goalie equipment if he would now be required to stare down a hitter who was wagging an aluminum club at him.
Before steroids defined baseball in the ?90s, there was actually some thought given to experimenting with aluminum bats in the big leagues back in the late ?80s, believe it or not ? I remember watching an episode of This Week In Baseball on this very topic ? but when HGH turned some batters into armed hulks who, with a mere flick of the wrists, were able to lose baseballs into the second deck, MLB wisely shelved the idea.
There?s no obvious fix to any of this and the status quo will likely prevail until of course someone gets dangerously impaled. And since sports in the modern age are marked by leagues eager to please soccer moms or roll over for pressure groups, it?s a good bet we?ll be seeing rules committees continue to endlessly deliberate about how to snuff out chewing tobacco from baseball or how to make professional football safer than a nursery school playground. In any event, I would never put anything past the rules makers? ability to grab hold of a sport and take yet another element of fun out of it.