The latest broken-bat scare on Tuesday night, which flattened plate umpire Kerwin Danley during the Texas Rangers-Blue Jays game in Toronto, provided New Jersey-based inventor Ward Dill with yet another argument that Major League Baseball needs a better formula for its bat-manufacturing rules.
Dill, an MIT graduate with experience in woodworking and designer of what he believes to be a shatterproof bat, believes that baseball's safety committee erred in its recent decision to stick with its rule that a bat must be forged from a single piece of wood. The committee called for a straighter grain in wood for increased strength, but Dill said the real solution is his Radial Bat, which uses 12 wedges of wood melded with adhesive.
In looking at the Radial Bat from the barrel end (like looking down the barrel of a gun), "Imagine a pizza pie with 12 slices," Dill said. "The grain radiates from the center of the bat and, as a result, the bat is equally strong in every direction."
Dill's bat has been tested by NCAA teams since last year, he said, without a single case of shattering. "If it has a fracture, it will break one or two or maybe three wedges, but not all 12, so it won't go all the way through the barrel."
It is the complete severing of the barrel end from the bat handle that has become common and, in several incidents, dangerous. In 2008, shattered bat barrels broke the jaw of a spectator in Los Angeles; struck plate umpire Brian O'Nora behind the left ear during a game in Denver; and cut Pittsburgh Pirates coach Don Long in the face while Long was standing in L.A.'s visitors' dugout.
In Tuesday's incident, the bat swung by Rangers designated hitter Hank Blalock broke apart on impact at the handle. While Blalock followed through, with just a sliver of wood still in his hands, the barrel flew into Danley's face, knocking him flat on his back. He was taken off on a stretcher and hospitalized. He never lost consciousness nor any feeling in his extremities and apparently was saved from more serious injury because he was wearing the new hockey-style facemask used by several umpires.
Dill, in addressing the high rate of broken bats - calculated at one per game last season - cited two major trends: Current players, having grown up using metal bats with their significantly thinner handles, prefer the same feel in a wooden bat as professionals, rendering bats more likely to shatter.
And the marketplace, "starting from essentially zero in 1997 to today, has moved from 100- percent ash bats to about 60 to 65-percent maple bats," Dill said. Since maple is 12 percent denser than ash, he said, the moisture must be reduced from the maple bat to make it lighter, and therefore more likely to break.
It doesn't help, he added, that a maple bat shattering does not produce the same "distinctive sound" as an ash bat, so that spectators, players and coaches tend to follow the flight of the ball - and don't see a broken barrel coming their way.