Monday, September 29, 2008

Mourning Wood

I'm sure the robonerds have better addressed this topic since the last time I discussed it (at BTF), but...

Again, if better baseball bats are harder baseball bats, then why the fuck haven't batmakers been experimenting with heavier, harder species than the same old same old maple and ash? IIRC, Babe Ruth used the heaviest bat of his day -- which is saying something, since most bats were made of hickory then. Obviously, with today's bigger athletes (certainly more robust than Ruth), heavier bats could be used without deleteriously affecting bat speed. If the advantage of maple bats is expressed as wood density = power, then why haven't batmakers been experimenting with (off the top of my head) persimmon wood, say, which is so hard it used to be used for golf club heads. Or what about osage orange (aka bowdock, aka hedgeapple) wood? Or dogwood, so hard it was once used for loom shuttles?

Maple bats are dangerous; ashes are experiencing genocide thanks to the emerald ash borer. Obviously, people need to get to work on finding an alternative. The ballplayers mentioned in the following Seattle Times story seem much less conservative than I supposed (ballplayers being some of the most reactionary and superstitious people on earth); it doesn't look like they are opposed to experimenting. Do I have to buy a fucking lathe myself?

Big-league players are into their bats big time
By Larry Stone

SEATTLE — Ty Cobb once called his bat "a wondrous weapon," and the sentiment has hardly diminished through the years.

Players still treat their old hickory stick (to use a dated term; hickory hasn't been used in bat-making for decades) with respect, devotion and tender, loving care rarely bestowed upon an inanimate object.

Of course, if you want to animate a player, just ask him about his bat of the moment.

Lou Brock once said, "Your bat is your life" and didn't consider it overstatement.

Tony Gwynn referred to one of his particularly effective bats as "nine grains of pain." Leon Durham had his mother pray over his before each season.

Ted Williams would go to the Louisville Slugger plant each winter and personally pick out his bats, sometimes tipping the lathe operators $10 or $15 — big money in those days — to ensure the finest craftsmanship.

Scott Spiezio would kiss each of his new bats. Luis Gonzalez, entering the final day of the 1993 season at .299, slid his bat into the room where the Astros were having Sunday chapel service (he went 2 for 3 and finished at .300).

"That's food for my kids, and I don't have any kids," former major-league infielder Jose Fernandez told The Indianapolis Star in 2000, referring to his bats.

Rangers equipment manager Zack Minasian once observed, "Next to their wives, players are in love with their bats."

That held true for no one more so than former Mariner Bret Boone. Teammate Ben Davis once counted 192 bats in Boone's locker.

"He was the biggest bat-crazy guy ever," said Mariners equipment manager Ted Walsh, the man entrusted for the past several years with ordering all the club's bats — except for Boone's.

"He laid down his own credit card," Walsh recalled. "He called Louisville directly. He wanted to be like a kid at Christmas time, and every day have a bat box waiting for him full of new bats, and see if they felt any different.

"We always joked that one time, we were going to take all the bats he discarded and just put them in a box and act like he got a new shipment."

Don Mattingly was one of numerous players known to have taken his bats to bed with him. According to his Yankees teammate Rex Hudler, Mattingly had a ready response if his wife complained: "Honey, I keep my bats warm at night so that you'll have money to go shopping during the day."

"That's our bread and butter," said Mariners outfielder Mike Morse. "Your bat is going to take you as far as you go in your career."

Which is why Morse's affair with his wood often turns out to be a one-night stand. That's how long he'll stick with it to see if the feel — and the results — are what he's seeking in a long-term relationship.

"If it isn't, he's going to BP," Morse said. "Maybe I brought him out prematurely."

Ex-Mariner Al Martin once said, "If I don't get a hit with a bat, it's firewood. I give it probably two games at the most."

Yeah, sure, they're inanimate objects, all right. You can bet your sweet spot that most players don't laugh at Ichiro Suzuki's stated belief that his equipment, including his bat, has a human heart.

Bernard Malamud obviously understood the sentiment when he created the character Roy Hobbs — aka "The Natural" — who carved his "Wonderboy" bat out of a tree split by lightning.

When Wonderboy is broken (in the book version, that is, which differs from the stylized Robert Redford movie), Hobbs buries it in left field.

Writes Malamud: "Roy undid his shoelaces and wound one around the slender handle of the bat, and the other he tied around the hitting part of the wood, so that except for the knotted lace and the split he knew was there it looked like a whole bat. And this is the way he buried it, wishing it would take root and become a tree."

In 1989, when Sports Illustrated ran a feature on the rise of aluminum bats (including the off-base prediction that aluminum bats would probably be used in the major leagues "by the turn of the century"), Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois addressed the U.S. House of Representatives to decry the decline of wood bats.

"I do not want to hear about saving trees," Durbin said. "Any tree in America would gladly give its life for the glory of a day at home plate."

A trio of Angels players achieved a measure of bat immortality in the mid-1990s when the expansion of the Oakland Coliseum outfield bleachers was in progress, resulting in what became known as "Mount Davis," after Raiders owner Al Davis.

"They were pouring cement in Oakland one day and J.T. Snow came running in during batting practice," recalled Hudler, now an Angels announcer. "He said, 'Hud, we can put our bats out there in the cement and they'll be there forever.' So me, J.T. and Gary DiSarcina ran our bats out there. They're in the loge. When they destroy the stadium, they'll see our bats out there."

The Mariners' Suzuki keeps his bats in a temperature-controlled humidor — a practice that's now undertaken by teammate Jose Lopez as well — and meticulously cleans off every speck of dirt.

But in baseball lore, ballplayers are more concerned about what they put on their bat — and we're not just talking the standard pine-tar treatment that made George Brett go batty in 1983, or the corked bats that have ensnared players from Sammy Sosa to Billy Hatcher in hot water.

One minor-league team put Jack in the Box sauce on their bats to cure a slump, and when the team started winning, kept doing it.

"Then we lost because someone didn't bring the secret sauce," longtime minor-league manager Wendell Kim told The Fort Myers (Fla.) News-Press.

Hall of Famer Eddie Collins would rub horse manure on his bat, telling teammates it kept them fresh. Former outfielder Oscar Azocar would pour alcohol on his bats and set them on fire to harden the wood. Jim Frey soaked his in motor oil. Joe Sewell rubbed his bat every day with chewing tobacco — and according to legend, used the very same bat every day of his 1,877-game career.

Generations of players have "boned" their bats — rubbing it with the femur bone of a cow, a process that compresses the grain and keeps the barrel more durable. However, bat boning has become largely obsolete with the rise of maple bats, which are so hard they don't need augmentation.

"A lot of guys don't even know what it is anymore," said Chuck Schupp, manager of professional bat sales for Louisville Slugger for the past 24 years.

Schupp and his Rawlings counterpart, Bill Steele, could tell you firsthand about the bat quirks of players. They roam major-league clubhouses all year, starting in spring training, to collect orders — and complaints.

"The bat has to be made to a player's specifications," said Steele. "I understand; it's a tool to them. If it doesn't feel right, they're not going to perform the way they want."

"I think it pushes you to do your job," added Schupp. "When guys excel at what they do, you want to make them happy."

The Mariners, like most teams, have budgeted about $80,000 for a season's worth of bats, purchased from one of 32 companies that are sanctioned by Major League Baseball.

That includes the traditional big boys — Louisville Slugger, still the market leader with an estimated 55 percent of players using their wood, as well as Rawlings (which now produces the iconic Adirondack brand) and Worth — but also upstarts like The Original Maple Bat Corporation, out of Ottawa, Canada.

Original Maple, its bats now distributed by sporting goods giant Wilson, took the game by storm in the early 2000s when Barry Bonds used the "Sam Bat" — named after founder Sam Holman, a woodworker and stagehand at Ottawa's National Arts Center for 23 years — to hit 73 homers in 2001.

Bonds swore by his "Rideau Crusher," named after a canal that winds through Ottawa. With that endorsement, Sam Bats — and maple — became the rage. While white ash used to dominate the market, it is now estimated that 70 percent of all major-league bats are maple.

Despite the raging controversy over the danger of maple bats, which have an alarming tendency to sever when they break, turning them into jagged missiles, the use of maple only seems to be increasing. Another problem for ash is infestation by a beetle, called the emerald ash borer, that is devastating ash trees in Canada and the Northeast United States, where most of the ash for bats is produced.

On the Mariners, Walsh estimates that 95 percent of the team uses maple. It is Walsh who is the team's liaison with the bat companies, placing each player's order — about eight to 12 dozen a season for each, at an estimated cost of about $65 per bat.

Jamie Burke swings maple in batting practice but uses ash in games. Raul Ibanez dabbles occasionally in ash but uses primarily maple, as does Morse.

"Everyone else is strictly maple," Walsh said.

The appeal of maple is the density of the wood. Bo Jackson would never have been able to break a maple bat over his leg in frustration.

"For me, not only is it a harder wood, but it doesn't chip, doesn't flake," Ibanez said.

Ibanez referred to a maple bat he broke in Anaheim last week.

"That had been my BP slash game bat for three weeks," he said. "You can use the same bat in BP as you do in the game, and you can't do that with ash."

It's a strange paradox — maple bats are revered for their durability, yet reviled by some for the danger when they do break. Commissioner Bud Selig has commissioned a safety committee to study possible remedies to the growing issue of flying bat fragments that endanger players, umpires, coaches and fans.

"I would hate to see them banned," Ibanez said. "Then again, I'd hate to see someone get stuck in the back of the neck."

Ibanez is a staunch proponent of the latest fledgling company to make an impact in the majors — Marucci Bat Co. out of Baton Rouge, La., which is currently used by players such as Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, David Wright, Manny Ramirez, Dan Uggla and Albert Pujols.

Not to mention a large group of Mariners, including Ibanez, who calls Marucci bats "for me, the best bats ever produced."

The story of the company is an amazing tale. The founder is Jack Marucci, head athletic trainer at Louisiana State University. Unable to find an appropriate wood bat for his 7-year-old son Gino a few years ago, Marucci decided to make one himself.

"I had taken wood shop in ninth grade," he said in a phone interview from LSU last week. "I spent 80-something bucks and got a cheap lathe. I made a bat in my backyard shed."

The bat proved popular with the Little League set, and Marucci ended up making more for his son's friends. He made a full-sized model and gave it to Eduardo Perez, then with the Cardinals, whom he knew from his days as a trainer at Florida State, Perez's alma mater.

Perez was stunned at the craftsmanship and sneaked the bat into a few games, even though it hadn't yet been approved by MLB.

News spread around baseball by word-of-mouth, and one day Marucci got a call from Manny Ramirez, asking for a few of his bats for the Red Sox's playoff run. Marucci toiled through the night to cut three bats, dubbing them CB24 — 24 being Ramirez's number, and CB standing for "Curse Buster."

The bat's popularity gradually grew, as did Marucci's operation. Now he works out of a 10,000-square-foot shop with 10 employees to make bats for 50 to 60 major-leaguers. But he still prides himself on the craftsmanship of his product.

"The process is all by hand," he said. "Every bat touches 10 sets of hands before it's shipped out."

Former Mariner Edgar Martinez never got comfortable with maple, sticking mostly to a Louisville Slugger ash model. Martinez was a fanatic for weighing each bat and pointing out the most minute discrepancy.

"I became a little more technical as I got older," Martinez said. "Right off the bat, I could feel if it was too heavy or too light. I started weighing all my bats. The ones I knew I wasn't going to use, I would give to the equipment manager to send back."

When he retired, Schupp sent Edgar a picture signed, "I hope I didn't speed up your retirement." Martinez has it hanging in his office.

Martinez's Louisville Slugger model, M356, remains, along with the C271, one of the most popular in the game, according to Schupp.

Some players, like Martinez, are known to be unfailingly generous with their bats, allowing any teammate to use it anytime. Others have the attitude of former first baseman George Scott, who used to say, "If you want to rumble, just touch my lumber."

And some have it both ways. When he played for the Cardinals, Hudler went on a hot streak using a bat borrowed from teammate Pedro Guerrero. But when Hudler got so hot that manager Joe Torre put him at cleanup — supplanting Guerrero — Pedro demanded his bat back.

"Me and Ozzie (Smith) thought that was pretty weak," Hudler recalled. "He took them all out of my locker."

Ask a ballplayer to explain his infatuation with bats, which to a layman borders on the fanatical, and he won't think it's all that unusual.

"They've been nice to me; I want to be nice to them," Mickey Tettleton once explained.