Safety Standards at Stadiums: Wooden Bats & Foul Balls

With the recent injury at Fenway Park, safety standards for fans have become a topic of conversation in and around the MLB. While fans are warned about flying objects, those posted notices are often overlooked. There is excitement in catching fly balls and watching careening foul balls move around the stadium. But, with the dangers posed by broken wooden bats and swiftly moving balls, fans need to be alert before every pitch.

Conundrum with Maple Bats

Most MLB players use maple bats. Prior to the switch to maple bats, the preferred wood was ash. Players enjoyed using ash bats because there were fibers that would make the bat harden over time; but once they found out that maple bats were hard from the start, players quickly made the switch. The hardwood maple bats are slightly heavier than ash bats or other wood, so players’ swings are slowed, but the added weight helps with the speed of the ball off of the bat.

Performance with Wooden Bats

Wooden bats perform differently based on their hardness and weight. They also break differently, which is why safety is being discussed so heavily. Ash bats will flake and eventually the grain will delaminate, rather than snap. Newer ash bats might splinter. Maple does not flake like ash; instead, it snaps in half. The snapping is due to the closed-grained structure of the wood itself. It is fact that maple bats snap in half that causes the safety problem. Splintered bats made of ash do not fly as far as a bat that has snapped.

Safety and the Nets

What is the MLB to do about safety at ballparks? Fans love the fact that they can get autographs, catch balls, and be involved in the game action which is why parks do not have netting anywhere other than behind home plate. The league did make a change to safety standards when it created the ruling that rookies had to use maple bats with higher density than veteran players in 2012. This did result in fewer broken bats, nearly 50 percent since they league started keeping track in 2009. Wooden bats are not going anywhere and it seems that netting is not wanted; so at the moment, the status quo remains.

Alternative Wooden Bats

Players do have other options for wooden bats. Birch bats have more flexibility than a maple bat while being harder than ash. Since birch is lighter, batters can swing faster and increased bat speed makes for farther traveling balls. Bamboo is the newest option, but they are only used as practice bats and fungos. Since bamboo is actually hollow on the inside, the bats are made by pressing strips together; this makes the bats quite strong with flexibility and pop. So, if a bamboo bat breaks, it will break into strips rather than splinter or snap. Birch is a hardwood like maple making them snap, too.

Safety or Souvenirs

Since wooden bats are here to stay, should the MLB put nets all the way to the outer edge of the dugouts? Fans who pay the high ticket prices to sit behind home plate do not seem to mind the protection that the tall nets provide. Some fans, the ones who sit in the first few rows, have actually been hit by balls that push into the nets (since the nets are not taut). If the MLB requires stadiums to install more netting, the stadiums will need posts to hold the netting in place which could cause slightly obstructed views for seats that have premium prices. While the nets will provide added safety for spectators, it will stop the practice of players tossing balls to fans sitting behind the dugout. The league will need to decide, safety or souvenirs?

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