Of Tyler Colvin and maple bats

Recently retired Chicago Cub manager Lou Piniella coined a phrase a couple of years ago: “a Cubby occurrence”. The definition is vague, but he meant to embody certain incidents that seemingly define Chicago Cubs baseball.

Often these Cubby occurrences are injuries or mistakes that leave Cub fans shaking their heads and thinking “only us.” Think of Sammy Sosa sneezing and ending up on the DL, Steve Bartman making a historic grab at a foul ball, a black cat running around Ron Santo, Kerry Wood falling out of a hot tub or Ryan Dempster breaking a toe in celebration. Sometimes these can be sad, controversial, or slightly funny. But the latest Cubby occurrence, on Sunday, may be serious enough to get Major League Baseball to finally follow through on a problem it’s known about for at least five years.

Cubs outfielder Tyler Colvin took a broken bat to the chest while scoring against the Florida Marlins when teammate Wellington Castillo’s maple bat snapped and sent a large shard flying down the third base line. Colvin is recovering now, but his season is over. Had the bat struck him in the neck, it’s possible he could have been the third MLB player to die on the field.

This is the latest in a line of serious injuries at the ballpark from shattered bats. This one is higher profile due to the extent of the injury and that it was a player and not a fan. Because this problem is not new, we can again question whether MLB is truly concerned with the safety of its players (and fans) or if the contentious relationship between owners and the union will once again undermine what should be an easy decision to either modify or ban maple bats.

It took the Balco scandal and a Congressional hearing to get the MLB Players Association and ownership to come together on steroid testing. The union had always argued that testing players would invade their privacy and owners never pushed hat hard for it. We all know by now that owners weren’t very interested in PEDs when home run records helped raise attendance figures. We also know that the union didn’t want testing to provide any impediment to multi-million dollar contracts for players who might be taking PEDs.

The two sides have discussed the future of maple bats, but in typical fashion, nothing will be done until public clamor forces their hands. Perhaps the injury to Colvin will spur such an outcry.

In addition to the standard stalemate between owners and the union, another hurdle may exist among the players themselves. Some guys really like maple bats and no amount of test results will convince them that those bats are not superior. Therefore, pitchers and hitters may find themselves at odds over the use of these bats. Given that hitters have shown that they will alter bats illegally at the risk of suspension, it’s no wonder that they’re reluctant to give up a bat that’s currently acceptable under MLB rules.

Studies have shown that although maple bats do not provide any measurable benefit as far as hitting a ball farther, they do sometimes break into large pieces, like the piece that pierced Colvin’s chest last weekend. Despite those findings, about half of MLB’s players use them because they believe the maple bats are harder than those made of ash and that even though their breakage is often spectacular, it actually happens less often than with ash.

So far MLB has only modified the accepted measurements and composition of maple bats in lieu of banning them. Those measures came in response to several injuries to fans, coaches, and players and resemble the slow-to-react pattern MLB has taken with regard to PEDs.

The suggestion for MLB to act quickly is not offered without realizing the magnitude of such an operation. A full scale and immediate ban could present a rather serious problem with logistics. The sheer number of replacement bats needed means this is a problem that should be addressed during an offseason. Therefore, starting a process now that MLB could implement for the 2011 season seems logical.

A possible solution, and much smaller in scale, already exists in the form of a protective tape that testing shows reduces the chance of a bat made of any wooden material shattering. Unfortunately, MLB is not acting on that yet either, and continues to run the risk of a player, fan, umpire, or coach dying at a baseball game.

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11 years ago

MLBPA gets a lot of credit for being such a “strong” union since they regularly get what they want from the owners. As this article points out, they are an awful union by any standard except wages. Unions exist to protect workers rights and health, not just maximize pay. MLBPA has been woefully inadequate on any issue other than money.

Jim P
11 years ago

” the third MLB player to die on the field. “

Who is the one besides Chapman?

David Wade
11 years ago

Jim P-

Mike “Doc” Powers.  He died after crashing into a wall.  Sort of like the guy in ‘The Natural’.  Like Michael Scott says, ‘Wikipedia is the best thing ever. Anyone in the world can write anything they want about any subject. So you know you are getting the best possible information.’  That’s where I read about Powers.

Also, I really should have said ‘died from injuries sustained on the field’ since neither died right there on the field, but later.

dave silverwood
11 years ago

2 questions 1.is maple used .because ash is scarce or because it seemed a good idea for maple suppliers.
2.Why can not mlb restrict the bats used to woods such as ash without players union approval seems like a stupid situation and baseball needs to clear it up
finally thanks for the good stuff you guys provide

David Wade
11 years ago


I’m gonna answer this without looking, based on the research I did yesterday morning- for two reasons. 

1.  so I can impress people with my knowledge if I’m right (which I think I am)

2.  so I can have an excuse in case I’m wrong.

That said, maple came in vogue in the late ‘90s (1999?) when a pretty good hitter named Barry Bonds started using one.  Players like Maple because they feel it’s harder- ash will get ‘dents’ on solid hits and maple doesn’t seem to.  I did see somewhere speculation that there’s a certain critter that’s got the ash tree supply in a downturn, but it seemed the bigger roadblock is letting manufacturers know the need, not so much them getting supply.

As for the second question, the way I understand it is there’s some sort of protection in the CBA for players’ ‘tools of the trade’, so a bat ban may violate any agreement.  But, the tape on the handle product I mentioned would make that a moot point that could be a good stop-gap solution, if not a permanent one if they prove to work in the field as well as they worked in tests the manufacturer touted.

David Wade
11 years ago

oh and dave, thanks for reading!

dave silverwood
11 years ago

thanks for your reporting and for giving me an answer I heard of the critter, but did not it was a ash critter—thanks again

11 years ago

interesting, bookmarked and link from my blog.