Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Would a BatGlove Prevent the Bad Breaks?

      By Ross Newhan

      Separated by 34.years, Steve Yeager, the Dodger catcher then, and Terry Colvin, now the Chicago Cubs rookie outfielder, were struck by broken bats and suffered pointed injuries that were almost tragedies.

      It's possible that a new product called a BatGlove would have prevented both incidents.

     So far, however, a bat manufacturer is arguing against its employment and Major League Baseball is pursuing a broader study than the positive results produced by the BatGlove on the 10 bats tested at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell laboratory.

     Meanwhile, Yeager often has flashbacks and is fearful of what may transpire at some point.
    "It's going to happen," he said by phone. "A fan, player or coach is going to be killed the way bats are breaking. I still get frightened when I see it happen.

     "In my era it seemed like the wood was heavier and bats simply broke in two. Now it's as if someone is cutting them down the middle with an electric saw the way they shatter.

     "Maybe pitchers are throwing with more movement and the bat handles are thinner."

     Yeager used an ash bat as most players did until the last two decades. Now players are using predominantly maple bats, a trend that started in the 90s when some players thought of maple as the steroid of woods. That trend has become virtually universal because there is a shortage of ash.

     Rob Manfred, baseball's executive vice president of labor, never thought he would have to become an expert in forestry.

     "To start with," he said, "the use of maple bats was player driven. Now, we might have to shut down if we banned maple."

     A bore beetle has impacted large areas of the nation's forests, Manfred said, affecting the ability of bat manufacturers to get high quality ash over an extended period.

     In the meantime, he said, the joint MLB-Players Union committee on health and safety has initiated "significant" quality control issues dealing with the quality of grain being used in bats, minimum handle size and maximum barrel size. In 2009, he said, the incidents of multi piece breakage was reduced by 35%, and this year it is down 15%, "I would say that 50% over two years is significant, and I'm sure we will work on it jointly again during the coming off season," Manfred said.

    Still, bats are flying.

    Colvin was leading off third base in last Sunday's game in Miami when teammate Welington Castillo, using a maple bat, hit a drive down the left field line for a ground rule double. Colvin initially watched the flight of the ball, and when he turned to trot home, he was stuck on the left side of his chest with the top half of the bat. He was able to score the run, but he was quickly hospitalized with a puncture wound that has ended his season and forced use of a chest tube to prevent his lung from collapsing. He is expected to be healthy for next season.

    Yeager was in the on deck circle in a 1976 game at San Diego Stadium that I covered for the Los Angeles Times. I can still see the harrowing flight of Bill Russell's broken bat twirling ominously in Yeager's direction. Like Colvin, Yeager saw the ball leave Russell's bat, bent over to knock the iron doughnut from the end of his bat, took a step towards the plate and was hit in the throat by the jagged top half of the broken bat. He was knocked to the ground and immediately taken to a hospital, where nine splinters were removed from his esophagus and a doctor told him he was lucky. Splinters were millimeters from puncturing his jugular vein. Yeager missed about two weeks before returning to action.

   Meanwhile, Steve Rauso, who designed the BatGlove along with is brother, Phil, said the tests have proven the effectiveness of the clear plastic wrap that can be applied to a bat for only $5.

   "Maybe it's not the end all product," Steve Rauso said from his Arizona home, "but in the meantime it could save a kid's life, a player's life. What's the price on that?" 

    Tests showed that the wrap, stretching from just above the handle to the lower end of the label, prevented any bat broken in that area from flying apart. The wrap also does not impact the performance of the ball on the bat, Rauso said. However, a major league official said the testing continues and that there is concern, among bat manufacturers and MLB about a process called "hitching" in which the broken top half of the bat, contained by the plastic wrap, would snap back and injure the catcher, umpire or batter.

    "There's simply a need for more testing," the official said.
    Yeager's injury led to the creation of an important safety product for catchers. Bill Buhler, the late Dodger trainer. created a leather piece to hang from the mask, preventing Yeager from getting hit by foul tips on his stitched throat and is now universally used by catchers.

    About 20 years later, driving home from his job as a coach with the Dodgers' San Bernardino farm team,  Yeager's car was totalled in an accident that was not his fault and he required 300 stitches from shoulder to wrist.

    "I just hope that the saying about a cat having nine lives is right," he said. "I've already used two of mine."   



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