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The Crack of the Bat

John Moe

Marc Sanchez

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Walter Ambrosch
(Courtesy of Walter Ambrosch)

It's been a surprising year in baseball. Perennial doormats the Tampa Bay Rays are in first place. A completely obscure player named Carlos Quentin leads the American League in home runs. Also surprising: way more broken bats are flying into the crowd and whapping people in the face.

Major League Baseball has launched a major investigation but hasn't come to any conclusions as to why this is happening.

Walter Ambrosch has been a woodworker all his life. He runs a bat company in Troy, Pa. According to Walter, the broken bat trend can be traced back to about ten years ago, when ball players started switching from ash to maple bats.

Walter Ambrosch: Generally speaking, if an ash bat breaks, it will break with the grain in such a way that if it's a one-piece break, it'll kind of hinge back and stay in one place, so to speak. With maple, because it's a close-grained hardwood, I've seen it break straight across the handle, almost as if it were sawn. The tendency seems to be that it explodes. It doesn't have a predictable breakage pattern.

John Moe: And because the maple is harder than the ash, or less flexible, it can go for more distance?

Ambrosch: Well, hickory would be the hardest, but it weighs a ton. Maple is hard, and then ash is one or two percent less.

Moe: What difference does weight make in the performance of a bat and the breakability of a bat?

Ambrosch: The lighter a bat is in weight, the faster it can be swung. So you can gain hundredths of a second in reaction time through the swing zone. The antithesis of that is the fact that the lighter the bat, the less density in the wood. Once you make contact, is the ball going to go further? And that's where the whole rub comes in with the maple bat. Maple, being a slightly more dense wood overall than ash, you get less big-barrel bats in a good weight out of a load of lumber. What some manufacturers have done is they dry the wood a little further to get that extra half-percent, one percent of moisture out of the wood.

Moe: It's sort of a recipe for a disaster here. You have the maple bats that are lighter with less moisture. You're just getting ready to set off bombs when you swing one of those things.

Ambrosch: I've made maple bats that lasted two or three seasons for some of my weekend warriors. And yet, I see some of these monstrous bats that big boys are swinging, and they're lucky to get two or three swings out of it.

Moe: Nobody likes to go to the ballpark and get a bat shard flying into their face. Walter Ambrose, I'm naming you commissioner of baseball starting today. What would you do to remedy this problem?

Ambrosch: As far as the fans are concerned - look what they did in hockey. You know, years ago, you had the boards on the side, and players would sometimes come across and land on your lap. Now you have all the Plexiglas protecting at least the lower level of spectators. At least for the Major League ballparks, they're talking about one solution being these tall net fences, so that if a bat should fly apart, or even a whole bat fly out of a player's hand far enough, it should get caught in the fence.

There should be a method by which you can test for moisture, test dimensions of handles and barrels. When you look at some of the baseball bats that are being swung by majors out there, you've got this long, skinny handle swelling up quickly to a large barrel. Well, there's no place for the stresses to go. Taper that transition over a longer distance, and the energy has some place to go, reducing the risk of breakage.

Moe: Walter Ambrose, bat maker from Gone Batty in Troy, Pa., thank you for joining us.

Ambrosch: You're welcome.

  • Music Bridge:
    Skink
    Artist: Elephant9
    CD: Dodovoodoo (Rune Grammofon)

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