A bat accident waiting to happen
You sat silent, scared, stunned. This was Dodger Stadium, in 1976, and Steve Yeager had collapsed on the field, blood spurting from his neck, the victim of a freak and life-threatening accident.
Yeager had been minding his own business in the on-deck circle. Bill Russell, the Dodgers’ batter, took a swing. His bat shattered, and a fragment flew wildly into the air, slamming into Yeager’s neck and piercing his esophagus. Surgeons removed nine pieces of wood from his neck.
In those days, before the invention of maple bats, that was an isolated incident.
“Nothing like today,” said Yeager, now the manager of the independent Long Beach Armada. “The bats broke, but very seldom did you see one just explode, or see the barrel of the bat go flying.”
You see that all the time now. They’re all dodgers, all the teams and even the fans, dodging wickedly jagged edges of half a bat coming at them at high speed.
“It’s mind-boggling,” Detroit Tigers Manager Jim Leyland said. “Every game, somebody’s ducking a bat. We spend more time picking the bat off the infield than we’ve done at any time in the history of the game.
“Somebody’s going to get hurt. It’s dangerous.”
Somebody already has. In April, Pittsburgh Pirates hitting coach Don Long was nailed by a wayward piece of a shattered bat, opening a gash along the left side of his face. The damaged nerve has yet to recover, so he has no sense of feeling in part of his upper lip.
Somebody here already has. Susan Rhodes sat four rows behind the visiting dugout at Dodger Stadium in April, following the flight of a ball.
“I never saw the bat coming at all,” she said. “All I felt was pressure and pain. Something smashed into the side of my face.”
Rhodes, who lives in Sherman Oaks, needed surgery to repair a jaw broken in two places. She still suffers from numbness in her chin and lips, migraine headaches and memory loss.
“My niece’s name,” she said. “I couldn’t think of that the other day.”
Those stories, and the stories of many more near-misses, pile up on the desk of the commissioner.
“I have a lot of clubs every day sending me articles and telling me what happened in their ballpark,” Bud Selig said. “I’m very sensitive. I’m very concerned.”
In Yeager’s day, the wood in just about all the bats was ash. But, after Barry Bonds tried maple bats and prospered with them, players scurried to order their own, to the point where the majority of players use maple today.
In the beginning, the maple bat drew raves for its durability. Maple wood is denser and stronger than ash, so bats tended to last longer. But bigger barrels added weight, so batmakers compensated with thinner handles that, in theory, are more prone to breakage.
Sam Holman, the Canadian inventor of the bat popularized by Bonds, did not return a call. His firm’s website, however, advises customers: “We carve 7/8" inch handles. We recommend 15/16" and larger.”
The commissioner’s office and the players’ union studied the issue two years ago. When bats broke, the study showed, ash tended to crack and splinter while maple bats tended to explode, violently and in large pieces. The most dangerous combination, the study found, appeared to be a thin handle on a maple bat.
Selig cannot simply ban maple bats, or thin handles, or the combination. Bats are tools of the trade, with specifications covered under the collective bargaining agreement. With the recent rash of incidents, owners and players will meet this month to discuss possible reforms.
Gary Sheffield of the Tigers has used maple and ash bats. The danger, he said, is not in the thickness of any handle but in the maple wood itself.
“When I came into the game, bats didn’t shatter the way they do now,” he said. “People didn’t even know about maple.
“Right now, you see pitchers at risk. You see people in the stands at risk. It puts the umpires at risk.
“If a bat goes backward, it could stab somebody.”
Yet an outright ban on maple bats, or even a minimum handle size, would not sit well in every clubhouse.
“It wasn’t a maple bat that Bill Russell was using,” Angels Manager Mike Scioscia said. “It’s tough to change the feel of a bat. If one guy has got a model he’s used for 10 years, now you’re going to say he can’t use those specifications? Or he has to use a different wood? There’s going to be a lot of questions.”
The Angels’ Torii Hunter said he prefers ash bats because maple bats “blow up too much.” Nonetheless, he said, “I don’t want somebody to tell me I can’t use a bat I’ve been comfortable with for seven or eight years.”
Long got injured as a coach, Rhodes as a spectator, but it appears only a matter of time until a player is injured -- on the field, during a game, live on television.
Angels coach Dino Ebel sees perhaps the greatest risk at Dodger Stadium, to infielders trying to track a jagged bat and a line drive against the light yellow-gray background of the seats behind home plate.
So perhaps the owners and players can agree on banning maple bats, on thicker handles for all bats, or on extending protective netting for fans.
“It’s obvious the commissioner is concerned about it,” Dodgers spokesman Charles Steinberg said. “The ballclub will follow the commissioner’s lead.”
And perhaps the reforms could include compensation for injured fans.
The Dodgers have expressed their sympathy to Rhodes, and they did provide first aid. Yet she said they have declined to pay medical expenses -- they could top $30,000, she said -- citing the risk every fan assumes by buying a ticket. You can see the warnings at every ballpark: Beware of bats and balls.
When Selig finally took decisive action on steroids -- after the prodding of Congress and “Game of Shadows” -- he said he could not have lived with himself had a parent ever asked him why he did not act once he learned a danger existed.
The same should be true here. God forbid a kid sitting in the front row at Dodger Stadium takes a bat to the neck, and Mom and Dad ask Selig to pay the funeral expenses.