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Study breaks

The Baltimore Sun

As a major league third baseman, manning the spot that has been dubbed "the hot corner," Melvin Mora knows that at any moment a scorching line drive or a flying bat fragment could be sent his way.

Given the choice, there's no question which one he'd prefer.

"If a broken bat comes right at me, I'd run away like crazy," Mora said.

It's an occupational hazard, and one that is happening more often with the increasing popularity of maple bats, which unlike their ash counterparts tend to snap and spray instead of crack.

Major League Baseball is concerned not just about the alarming frequency of broken bats, but also about the veritable explosion that occurs when the maple ones break. So concerned that its safety and health advisory committee is intensely studying the issue.

For the past few weeks, MLB representatives have been in all 30 ballparks charting and chronicling each broken bat. At Camden Yards, Perry Sauers is the MLB "authenticator," sitting in the photographer's pit near the home dugout during games. He receives all broken bats, catalogs them, affixes a sticker with an identifying number, logs them into a computer and sends them to the committee for analysis.

"They are looking at a number of things," said MLB spokesman Patrick Courtney, whose office is handling all media requests concerning the issue. "They'll look at how the bats are breaking, how many are there, what type of wood. They also could be looking at the diameter of the bat, the type of handle ... those types of things."

There is no timetable to complete the research throughout the league, but Courtney said the committee is hoping to gather its data "as quickly as possible."

Although they have been around for a couple of decades, maple bats have risen to prominence in the past few years. Courtney estimates that 60 percent of major leaguers use them now, including the majority of Orioles hitters.

It is believed in baseball circles that balls are hit harder and farther with maple than with other types of wood, but an MLB-financed study debunked that myth. What has the league concerned, however, is the increasing number of incidents involving the bats entering the stands or hitting on-field personnel.

In April, Pittsburgh Pirates hitting coach Don Long was in the dugout when a shard from a broken maple bat struck him in the face and scarred his left cheek. In June, plate umpire Brian O'Nora absorbed a maple bat shard in the head and was taken to a Kansas City hospital.

"It isn't only the people in the stands. ... I am concerned with the safety of people on the field," baseball commissioner Bud Selig told writers at the All-Star Game two weeks ago. "We had the situation in Kansas City a few weeks ago, which, only by the grace of God, would have been a real problem."

Attempting to ban the bats is unlikely - for one, it would have to be a collective bargaining agreement item - but establishing specifications that could better control the shattering is a potential goal.

"We are awaiting the results of the study," Selig said. "In the meantime ... I've been talking to a lot of people. Players who played three generations ago, two generations ago, 10 years ago and players of today. I must say, in the terms of the older players, they all say the same thing: They've never seen anything like it. And everybody always seems to go back to the maple."

But there are some who believe the controversy is being overblown.

Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts, who began using maple bats about four seasons ago and said he has become comfortable with them, said breaking bats, like other potential dangers, are part of the game.

"I think it is silly because I see more people get hit with balls than with bats," Roberts said. "You are never going to make this game safe. In general, you are never going to make any athletic event completely safe."

This week, Roberts said he saw a fan near the Orioles' dugout break a nose because of a misjudged batted ball. At Chicago's Wrigley Field two weeks ago, a 7-year-old boy's skull was fractured by a foul ball.

"If you are worried about fans' sake, I worry way more about balls than I do bats," Roberts said. "That is for sure."

Selig said he has no plans to add extra netting or any other devices that would prohibit bat shards or balls from leaving the field.

"It creates a lot of other problems," he said.

Before every major league game, fans are warned to pay attention while the game is being played. The players, though, get no such warning. They have to instinctively avoid careening objects, even if it means making a split-second decision.

"If the bat is coming at me, the ball is going to go," Mora said. "I am going to pay more attention to the bat than the ball. I don't care. I can give up a base hit, but they cannot give me my life back."


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