FORT WORTH — When the barrel of Texas Ranger Hank Blalock's baseball bat snapped off and whipped behind his helmet, crashing into the face mask of home plate umpire Kerwin Danley and frighteningly knocking him to the ground, the first question that resonated around major league baseball was, "How's Danley?"
The second question was, "Maple or ash?"
Danley suffered a concussion, but is OK and is back to work.
As for the broken bat, Blalock is strictly a swinger of old-school ash. That's important to note as Major League Baseball continues its already half-million-dollar investigation into understanding why maple bats dangerously shatter at an alarming rate and how to fix it.
When ash bats break they tend to splinter or snap off like a matchstick. On occasion, such as in Blalock’s case in that April 21 game against the Blue Jays, the barrel can fly off and cause injury. Bats break. That’s baseball.
"It was just kind of a freak thing," Blalock said.
However, in the case of maple bats breaking and turning into whirling, pointed weapons, Blalock and others say there are no freak incidents.
Maple is a denser, harder wood than ash, and maple’s cellular structure, which differs from ash, can cause bats to explode or shatter, launching razor-sharp projectiles in the direction of players on the field, coaches and players in the dugouts and fans in the stands, sometimes with devastating consequences.
Last season, Pittsburgh Pirates hitting coach Don Long suffered a gash to the left side of his face when a sharp piece of maple swirled into the dugout and sliced him, narrowly missing his eye.
A fan at Dodger Stadium suffered a broken jaw. Blood streamed down the face of home plate umpire Brian O’Nora in a game last June in Kansas City after a shard of maple stabbed him in the forehead.
These instances spurred a joint, six-month investigation by MLB and the players association in which all broken bats from July through September 2008 were shipped to a team of experts for analysis.
The testing of 2,232 broken bats led to nine new regulations regarding maple bat production, mostly focusing on "slope of grain" issues. Essentially, the best quality wood has an even grain. As the straightness of the grain decreases, the durability of the bat, particularly the handle, decreases.
Slope of grain is more difficult to discern in maple than ash, and researchers determined that manufacturers were letting too much bad maple slip into the process, producing too many flawed, and potentially hazardous, bats.
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