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For now, maple bats remain in Tampa Bay Rays' clubhouse

Carlos Peña is one of several Rays who use maple bats, and he said he is reluctant to change.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

Carlos Peña is one of several Rays who use maple bats, and he said he is reluctant to change.

PORT CHARLOTTE — If Joe Maddon really could do things his way, he'd go around the Rays clubhouse and take away the maple bats stashed in the lockers of Carl Crawford, Carlos Peña, Pat Burrell, B.J. Upton and others.

"Absolutely," Maddon said. "If I was in an autonomous situation where I was controlling this whole thing, they would not be permitted on my team."

But Maddon, manager of the Rays but just an employee of one of the 30 teams under the auspices of Major League Baseball, isn't anywhere near that empowered. So as vociferously as he addresses the dangers of maple bats and argues for them to be banned, the reality is he can't do anything about it.

And in the interim, he benefits from them. Several of his top hitters prefer to swing the maple.

"I don't consider it hypocritical at all," Maddon said. "It's accepted within all of Major League Baseball, and I accept everything that happens within Major League Baseball. I'm just saying right now I think this needs to be reconsidered. And until the point that it is and they're pulled from the game, of course our guys are going to use them.

"Do I like it? No, I think it's wrong. But it's not up to me to make the decision."

With maple bats still approved for use by MLB and the players union, the decision is up to the individual hitters.

About half of the Rays use them. And as well aware as they are of the potential dangers and risk — and as much as they saw and talked about Wednesday's video of teammate David Price getting clipped by Adrian Beltre's broken maple bat — several see no reason to stop using equipment they believe works for them just as others in other sports wouldn't.

"It's like (golfer Phil) Mickelson's wedge," Burrell said. "It's legal."

"Perfect example; it's exactly like that," Upton said of the club that's legal on the PGA Tour only because of a loophole. "If they say you can use (maple bats), you use them. But if they were to outlaw them today, I wouldn't be upset about that, either."

Hitting coach Derek Shelton said it's a "personal preference thing," and pointed out the dilemma.

"Guys aren't going to stop using them unless they tell them to stop using them," he said. "As a hitting coach, I want my guys to use what they feel most comfortable using. On the flip side of that, we have to make sure the safety part of it is all-encompassing."

Hitters started using the maple bats a few years ago for several reasons. They think the wood is harder; there is less "give" and more "jump" when the bat strikes the ball; the bats don't splinter and last longer.

"I love them," said Peña, who can't remember when he didn't swing maple. "I just think it's better wood. It feels harder to me. And if I was to put a formula on it, I'd want the hardest wood possible, the one with the least amount of give. That's just straight physics."

But there are psychological aspects of the appeal as well. Hitters think the maple bat is just better.

"I think with a lot of guys it's more of a mental thing than a physical difference," said Evan Longoria, the team's player representative, who tried maple but stuck with top-quality ash.

MLB has been studying the maple bat issue, seeking to determine if the bats are breaking more frequently and in more dangerous ways.

There is also thought that a factor in the breaks is how the bats are made, with hitters favoring larger barrels and smaller handles.

Until MLB takes action — and Maddon thinks it will soon — the issue is literally in the players' hands.

"My hope," he said, "is that something will be done and they're taken out of every clubhouse."

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com.

For now, maple bats remain in Tampa Bay Rays' clubhouse 03/11/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 6, 2010 1:47pm]
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