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Players' relationships with bats have inspired any number of myths and tales. (Ed Wolfstein / Icon SMI / Corbis)

Baseball’s Bat Man

When stars like Derek Jeter ask to customize their baseball bat, Chuck Schupp makes sure they get what they want

“It doesn’t,” Schupp says, and research commissioned by Major League Baseball backs him. In 2005, the league spent $109,000 for Jim Sherwood of the Baseball Research Center at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell to study the differences. He concluded that the batted ball speeds for ash and maple were essentially the same. “You’re talking physics versus clubhouse logic,” says Schupp. “The exit velocity is not any different. But it’s a harder, dense grain so it does fray less.”

Maple has a different problem. It shatters when it breaks, sending splintered projectiles into the field. After so many bats turned into weapons during the 2008 and 2009 seasons, Major League Baseball commissioned a study, then implemented regulations that required a minimum wood density, outlawed soft maple bats, reduced the diameter of barrels and increased the minimum diameter of handles. The rate of maple bats breaking dropped 35 percent from 2008 to 2009 and another 15 percent this season, according to Major League Baseball.

In September, though, Chicago Cubs outfielder Tyler Colvin, while running toward home plate, was struck in the chest with a splintered bat. He spent three days in the hospital for treatment of the puncture wound. The injury renewed calls from some players and managers to ban maple bats. Earlier this year, Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon said “The maple bat is turning into the Claymore mine of baseball,” adding that it was only a matter of time before someone was impaled. “I don’t like it... Something needs to be done.”

Major League Baseball officials said they would seek to expand the existing regulations to make handles thicker and barrels thinner during the off-season. Schupp says with six months lead time or more, Hillerich & Bradsby could harvest enough ash (despite an eight-year ash blight that’s hit Northeast forests), but he doesn’t think Major League Baseball will ban maple, the latest craze. “The customer—the ballplayer—more than half of them ask for maple,” he says. “The players want it. That’s the tough thing.”

Ultimately, Schupp and the craftsmen at H&B as well as the other bat makers are trying to create—recreate, really—something as elusive as a World Series-ending home run—feel-good wood. Two bats may be the same length, the same weight and the same shape yet feel entirely different.

“I pick ‘em up and if they feel good, then I use them,” said Wade Boggs, the Hall of Fame batting champion. “It’s all feel.”

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About Jim Morrison
Jim Morrison

Jim Morrison is a freelance writer whose stories, reported from two dozen countries, have appeared in numerous publications including Smithsonian.com, the New York Times, and National Wildlife.

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