Amid the hysteria about how baseballs are flying over the right-field fence at the new, $1.5 billion Yankee Stadium – the first four games at “Coors Field East” produced 20 homers – a more horrific trend barely was noticed Tuesday night in Toronto.
In the sixth inning of a game between the Rangers and Blue Jays, home plate umpire Kerwin Danley had to leave the field on a stretcher after the barrel of a shattered bat hit him in the head. Because Danley opts to wear the kind of facemask used by hockey goalies, his equipment choice likely spared him a lengthy stay in a hospital.
Or worse, a short hospital stay determined futile.
Bats have been exploding with increasing frequency over the past five or so years, and while Major League Baseball officials are concerned, no rules changes appear imminent for the simple reason that no player, coach, umpire or spectator has been killed. The rule book isn’t tweaked unless there’s a fatality.
It wasn’t until the 2007 death of Mike Coolbaugh, struck by a line drive while coaching first base for the Double-A Tulsa Drillers, that a 2008 rule was implemented requiring base coaches, at all levels, to wear batting helmets. (At least baseball’s wheels of change roll faster than they once did. Hitters finally were required to wear helmets in 1971 – 51 years after a fastball killed Cleveland Indians shortstop Ray Chapman.)
As for the all-too-familiar occurrence of a bat splintering across the field, or into the stands, the question isn’t whether a fatality will occur. The question is when and where.
In 2005, pitcher Rick Helling, working on a comeback in the minor leagues, was the victim of a 15-inch shard that impaled his left arm. That was scary, but Helling survived. No deathly harm, no foul.
More recently, shattered bats have sliced the cheek of Pirates hitting coach Don Long, and left a deep gash across the face of umpire Brian O’Nora. The concussion Danley suffered in Toronto was followed, on Wednesday night, by the close encounter Reds pitcher Johnny Cueto had with a piece of Milton Bradley’s bat in Chicago.
It’s no mystery why so many bats are splintering on contact: Some 55 percent of players prefer maple bats popularized by Barry Bonds. Maple bats tend to snap when broken. A broken bat made of ash, on the other hand, usually cracks.
The distinction is important. A snapped maple bat can deposit debris that travels as far as 100 feet, in any direction. A cracked ash bat almost always remains in one piece.
Although research at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell has proven that maple provides no extra power, old habits – unlike maple bats – are hard to break. So those players who prefer maple will continue to use maple. It’s legal, isn’t it?
The shattered-wood problem has been intensified by thin handles, which give the bat a whip-like dimension similar to a driver removed from a golf bag. Can’t blame Bonds for this; it was the beloved Ernie Banks, during the 1960s, who first demonstrated the advantages of a thin handle.
Hmmm. What to do? Major League Baseball could try to outlaw maple, a move maple-bat manufacturers figure to fight in court. Any bets on a swift resolution for that case?
Here’s a better idea: Allow hitters the freedom to swing a maple bat, with handles as thin as they want. But if the bat snaps and any piece of it lands on the field, the hitter is ruled out on batter’s interference.
You might assume interference is applicable only when a hitter impedes a catcher’s attempt to prevent a stolen base, but umpires also can call it when a hitter’s bat is thrown into fair territory – whether intentional or not – and interferes with a fielder’s ability to make a play on the ball.
If an unintentionally thrown bat can be justification for an automatic out, a broken bat that finds infielders dodging flying shards should be cause for an automatic out, too. Once there are consequences for using bats prone to shatter, the decisions between maple and ash, or regular handle and extra-thin handle, become a whole lot easier.
Granted, a few guys – the usual suspects – wouldn’t get it. Maple, despite evidence to the contrary, has been very, very good to them. They’d take their chances … until they were responsible for the automatic out that dooms a rally, affects their batting average, and lands them in the fans’ doghouse.
A slight revision of the batter’s interference rule could solve a problem that’s become a public-health hazard. A year ago Saturday, the life of a 50-year old woman was changed by a broken-bat projectile that sailed into the fourth row of the first-base dugout seats at Dodger Stadium.
Doctors installed a titanium plate in the right side of her face, which healed one of her two jaw fractures but did nothing to solve her migraine headaches and damaged teeth. Thousands of dollars in medical bills not covered by insurance were not covered by the Dodgers, either. (It’s on every ticket: Ballclubs are not liable for injuries sustained by flying objects.)
A maple bat’s barrel had wounded a spectator, but it’s not difficult to imagine how it could have impaled, say, Dodgers first baseman James Loney, or the umpire a few feet behind him.
The first base umpire fortunate to avoid serious injury that night?
John McGrath: 253-597-8742; ext. 6154