Susan Rhodes was never a huge baseball fan.
But when the 50-year-old real estate marketer from Sherman Oaks, Calif., was offered seats four rows behind the visitors' dugout at Dodger Stadium on April 25, the single mother of two teenagers thought her first game in five years would be a fun night out.
It turned into a "nightmare."
In the seventh inning, Rhodes was struck in the face with the barrel of a maple bat, which had shattered on a single by the Rockies' Todd Helton and flown into the seats. The bat broke her jaw in two places; her jaw wired shut for three weeks, she lost a lot of sleep — and 18 pounds.
This incident came 10 days after Pittsburgh hitting coach Don Long was sliced along the cheek with the end of a bat, which had soared 30 feet as he watched the ball. Long suffered nerve damage and required 10 stitches.
The commissioner's office considers maple bats one of the game's leading concerns, a topic to be discussed at a meeting Tuesday that will include the players' union. The bats were barely in the game a decade ago, but since Barry Bonds used them during his record-setting seasons, they have become baseball's favorite wood, with more than 50 percent of players preferring them to the traditional ash, including most of the Rays. They like the bats because they think maple provides a harder hitting surface and lasts longer.
But as opposed to ash bats, which show cracks when they break, damage to the denser maple bats is often hidden until they shatter. When they do, shards project like missiles toward the infield — and the stands.
"They're breaking at unprecedented rates," said Rays senior VP Gerry Hunsicker, who is on MLB's health and safety committee. "The way they're breaking is also unprecedented, the fact they are splitting in two, the fact they're taking missile-like trajectories out there. That never happened before."
Fans such as Rhodes, some players and others such as Rays manager Joe Maddon, who call the bats "dangerous," hope something is done for the sake of safety.
"I hope they change the rule because I think someone is going to get hurt," said Rays rookie third baseman Evan Longoria, the team's union rep, who prefers ash bats. "I see it more and more these days, bats snapping off, flying out by the pitcher, flying into the stands. It's going to take someone getting hurt for them to pass that rule."
Solving a problem
Ironically, Sam Holman, the father of maple bats, introduced the wood to MLB in 1997 to "solve a bat-breaking problem."
Holman, a batmaker in Ottawa, said he was approached by then-Expos scout Bill Mac-Kenzie, who asked him if he could come up with an answer.
Holman created the Sam Bat with maple found in forests in New York, dried with a vacuum kiln and thought to be harder and more durable than traditional ash. Former Blue Jay Joe Carter was among the first to use maple. Bonds followed suit, and soon, so did the rest of baseball. Although a study commissioned by MLB and the union in 2005 showed maple and ash hit the ball the same, players — including the Rays' Carl Crawford — swear by maple.
Hitters are creatures of habit, and superstition. As Rays shortstop Jason Bartlett said, "If I get hits with it, I'll use it."
Louisville Slugger, which supplies more than 50 percent of MLB's bats, saw it was a hit with players and jumped on the maple bandwagon seriously seven years ago. For the past three years, 52 percent of the bats it has delivered to MLB have been maple, said Rick Redman, VP of communications. About 30 other companies are licensed to sell bats to major-league clubs.
Redman said he knows why maple bats break in different ways. Ash doesn't shatter because of its longer grain, which, like a layer of skin, holds it together. Maple bats can have hidden defects that, no matter how many times they are graded through the batmaking process, won't be detected unless they're given a test akin to an MRI exam.
But to Holman, it all comes down to quality. He said some bat manufacturers could be cutting corners to cash in on a growing market, using inferior wood, like the thousands of pieces he has hung on his Wall of Shame.
"For a decade people did look for the very best that's out there," Holman said. "Someone is salting the field, it doesn't make sense. Why didn't Joe Carter and Jose Canseco have these huge breakage problems? They had quality in their hands."
The question MLB now has on its hands is what to do about the maple madness.
The issue was brought up during collective bargaining discussions in 2006, but nothing came of it. MLB asked clubs in 2007 to chart broken bats but wouldn't release the numbers before Tuesday's meeting.
Rays clubhouse manager Chris Westmoreland, who said 90 percent of the Rays use maple, said a lot more have been breaking this year, three to five a game.
MLB could attempt to augment (Redman said thickening the handle would help), or ban, the maple bats. Crawford and Bartlett said they've alternated between maple and ash and could use either. One problem with a ban is producing enough bats to meet the spike in demand for ash. Chuck Schupp of batmaker Hillerich & Bradsby told USA Today it could take a year to 15 months to fill it.
As an alternative, the league could discuss, as Holman suggests, extending the protective netting past the dugouts.
To some, they can't afford to do nothing.
"They're breaking all the time, so something's not going right," said veteran Cubs outfielder Jim Edmonds, who uses ash bats. "If they're hitting people in the face and causing people to go to the hospital, I'd say they're dangerous."
Rhodes is out of the hospital and back at work, but she is still experiencing pain and memory loss. Her attorney said they are considering legal action against the Dodgers and/or Rawlings to cover her medical expenses.
"From now on," Rhodes said. "I'll watch it on TV."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]