The debate concerning the use of maple bats by MLB players has flared anew after Cubs rookie outfielder Tyler Colvin was nearly impaled by the remnant of a shattered maple bat used by teammate Welington Castillo.
The shad hit Colvin under his collarbone causing an injury known as pneumothorax. In layman’s terms, a jagged piece of Castillo’s bat pierced Colvin’s chest wall and air leaked from his lung, becoming trapped inside his chest. If you think Colvin’s injury sounds life-threatening, it was. But fortunately, the outfielder was released from a Miami hospital after a four-day stay, thankful that only his season had ended and not his life.
A number of on-field personnel – umpires, players, and coaches – as well as fans have been the unintended victims of splintered bats. One fan, Susan Rhodes, was sitting in the stands during a game at Dodger Stadium in April 2008 when the flying remnants of a maple bat shattered her jaw. Rhodes’ injuries required multiple surgeries and resulted in permanent disfigurement.
Although not all the injuries can be attributed to maple bats, there’s no doubt that maple bats shatter at a rate that exceeds ash, and the splintering affect of maple makes such incidents exceedingly dangerous.
MLB and the Players’ Association formed a committee in 2008 to review the maple bat controversy. Multiple tests have been run to determine why maple bats shatter more frequently and to a greater degree than ash. Causes have included the wood itself, which is much denser than ash, and the design of maple bats. Because of its extra density, maple bats can be manufactured with larger barrels and thinner handles, which apparently makes them more prone to splintering.
So why not ban maple bats entirely? MLB can’t ban equipment without the consent of the MLBPA. According to Rob Manfred, MLB’s Executive Vice President of Labor Relations, the league has worked with the union on measures that have reduced the incidence of shattered bats by 50 percent in the past two years. While significant, those numbers suggest there is still a long way to go to improve safety for everyone at the ballpark.
Manfred also maintains that a ban on maple bats would imperil the games. Due to beetle infestation that has killed millions of ash trees, there isn’t enough “high-quality” ash available to keep up with the demand for bats.
Most MLB players currently use maple bats and don’t want to see their freedom of choice restricted. Castillo’s comments after his airborne bat injured Colvin are telling. “It wasn’t my fault,” Castillo told ESPN. “I didn’t want to hit him on purpose. That’s baseball. It happens.” The fact it happens more frequently when using maple bats didn’t seem to register with Castillo, who has used maple his entire career.
The union has every intention of supporting its membership on this issue. MLBPA Executive Director Michael Weiner told the Chicago Tribune, “We wish Tyler a speedy recovery. The bargaining parties have made meaningful progress on bat safety. We look forward to continued discussions with the Commissioner’s Office this offseason on practical solutions to enhancing safety in the ballpark.” Those carefully chosen words don’t suggest that the union is overly concerned about the potential – and perhaps inevitable - catastrophe that awaits one of its members or an unsuspecting fan.
To date, there is only one recorded suit against MLB for injuries suffered as a result of a shattered bat. MLB’s defense in that suit relies on the theory of assumption of the risk, where fans are presumed to understand and accept the risks associated with attending a baseball game, including the risk of being hit by foul balls and flying bats. While that defense has worked well in the past, it rests on the nature of the game, the unpredictability of when and how balls and bats leave the field of play and end up in the stands. In MLB’s own words, when players use maple bats over ash the risk of injury to fans may increase by 50%. That documented information is a plaintiff attorney’s dream.
It is way past time for the union and MLB to agree on measures that would prevent maple bats from shattering at a rate that exceeds ash. The alternative is to ban them entirely.
Jordan Kobritz is a staff member of the Business of Sports Network. He is a former attorney, CPA, and Minor League Baseball team owner. He is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Eastern New Mexico University and teaches the Business of Sports at the University of Wyoming. He looks forward to your comments and can be contracted, here.
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