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Manufacturer's Maple Bats Making Inroads In MLB

Mon, 07/12/2010 - 6:10am
Robert Dvorchak, AP Writer

BROOKVILLE, Pa. (AP) -- When he was taking his first cuts in the business of selling baseball bats 10 years ago, Mike Gregory visited the spring training complex of the Minnesota Twins to extol the virtues of a maple instrument handcrafted from his family's stands of Pennsylvania hardwood.

"I went everywhere to get the word out," he said, aware that bat-making giants such as Louisville Slugger and Rawlings had long established themselves among the fickle and fussy clientele of major league baseball players.

One player who had just been drafted by the Twins -- he was Canadian-born and wore the No. 33 of hockey goalie Patrick Roy -- liked what he heard. He liked the feel, and he especially liked the results after taking his whacks.

That first customer was Justin Morneau. And in the ensuing decade, while swinging lumber made by BWP Bats LLC, he has won an American League MVP award, two batting titles and the home run derby at the 2008 All-Star game.

"We knew we could make a nice bat," said Gregory, 35. "It's all in the wood. We can paint it and make it pretty. It all comes down to the wood."

In addition to Morneau, who receives six dozen BWP bats a year, the company provides bats to former batting champion Freddie Sanchez and Detroit's Johnny Damon, who formerly played with the Red Sox and Yankees. Manny Ramirez also uses BWP, although he relies on several manufacturers.

Another client is pitcher Brad W. Penny, whose monogram matches the company logo, and the company uses the initials in its slogan -- Built With Pride.

That's not a bad stable of stars for BWP, one of about 32 manufacturers of bats for major league players.

The company,  It has more than 200 major and minor leaguers under contract, and it is the second-largest supplier of bats to the minor leagues, including bats used in the farm systems of the Phillies and Pirates.

It ships bats to all 50 states and 20 countries -- wherever baseball is played.

BWP is a subsidiary of Brookville Wood Products, which for 45 years has harvested and processed wood for the furniture and flooring industries. It owns 5,000 acres of hardwood stands in Pennsylvania's prime lumber belt.

For years, the company also sold cylinders of wood that can be processed into bats by Louisville Slugger and other bat makers. The changing dynamics of the furniture industry led to fresh thinking and ultimately to baseball bats.

About 25 years ago, furniture makers lost ground to cheaper competition from China, and the domestic lumber industry was shaken to its roots.

"The U.S. furniture business died," said Gregory, a graduate of Slippery Rock University and BWP vice president. "We needed to diversify."

Baseball bats are lacquered in mystique. Some players pamper them the way King Arthur cared for Excalibur. In the movie "The Natural," a young Roy Hobbs crafts a bat named Wonderboy from an oak tree that has been struck by lightning.

Some of that charm is evident at BWP Bats in Jefferson County, about a two-hour drive north of Pittsburgh. The factory is in what used to be a country church, and the basement is known as -- what else? -- the Bat Cave.

But computerization and science are now ingrained into the process of turning raw billets into finished bats with the consistency demanded of some of the most superstitious people on the planet -- major league hitters.

"You can make a bat, or you can make a bat right," Gregory said. "When we do tours, the thing that surprises people the most is that a piece of wood is touched 17 times before it leaves the factory."

BWP Bats came into existence just as maple was emerging as a favored hardwood. Toronto's Joe Carter swung a maple bat in 1998 that was approved by Major League Baseball, and about half of the bats used in the big leagues are made from maple. About 70 percent of BWP's bats are maple; the rest are ash.

In the earliest days of professional baseball, hickory was used to bludgeon a pitch.

Northern ash, however, was lighter and had more flex, and it ruled the batter's box for more than a century until hard maple made inroads. The best ash for bats grows on the eastern slopes of the Allegheny ridges in Pennsylvania and New York.

But several years ago, when baseball bats were breaking with alarming frequency and broken shards posed injury threats to fans, umpires and players, baseball turned to a dream team of forestry and other experts to find remedies. Maple bats were failing three times more often than ash, and they tended to break into multiple pieces.

In 2009, when new regulations called for better wood quality, there was a significant drop in the number of broken bats. The decrease has continued through the first half of this season, but at a lower rate.

In 2009, the number of broken bats was down 30 percent from the year before. Through the first half of this season, the number is down another 15 percent to 20 percent. Injuries have tapered off, which means the game is safer.

"Knock on wood," said Dan Halem, MLB's senior vice president and a member of the safety and health advisory committee. "As long as we keep seeing reductions, we're going to keep at it.

"We collected every bat that broke, and after evaluation by our team of experts, we found that lower-density wood proved to be breaking more," he added. "We approached the issue the way a wood manufacturer approaches a construction project. When you're building a house, you choose wood that has certain weight-bearing characteristics and a certain quality."

The chief factor in determining the strength of wood is something called slope of grain: Wood will be strongest if cut parallel to the grain of a tree. Its strength diminishes if it is cut at an angle to the grain of the tree.

"In layman's terms, the straighter the slope of grain is, the stronger the wood is. The denser it is, the stronger it is," said Scott Drake of TECO, a timber engineering company in Sun Prairie, Wis.

Maple is harder to grade by slope of grain, but extra steps have made a big difference in delivering better wood, said Drake, who has a wood science degree and a master's in business administration but never had a class in baseball bats.

"We drew a line in the sand on these grain angles. We didn't want the problem to get any worse," he said. "The bat manufacturers do not want their logo on a broken bat flying into the stands, or at a player in the field or at an umpire. They were feeling it financially."

Enormous help in identifying better lumber for bats came from research done in World War II by Wisconsin-based Forest Products Laboratory, the country's largest wood research facility. It found that the strongest wood for use in airplanes had the straightest and densest slope of grain.

"It takes more work, more time and more materials, but it results in a better bat," said Drake, who grew up in Bethel Park and remains a Penguins fan.

Although it costs more to make a safer bat -- major league bats sell for around $80 -- BWP Bats is among the manufacturers who favor the stricter regulations.

"Nobody wants to see anybody get hurt," said Gregory. "Our goal is to make the best product possible."

Baseball is so committed to getting its hands around the broken bat issue that it has gone high tech.

Because all games are broadcast on MLB Advanced Media, video of every broken bat is coded and preserved on a master tape. Information is later attached to include where the bat landed, whether it shattered or cracked, what teams and what players were involved, what species of wood and what bat model.

It doesn't take a federal study to note that a bat that has a thick barrel and a thin handle is more likely to break, which is why there are standards on size and weight ratios.

An example of a well-engineered bat belongs to Alex Rodriguez -- a Louisville Slugger Model C271 made of ash with a strong handle and a strong barrel, Drake said.

"If everybody used a bat like Alex Rodriguez, I wouldn't be here talking to you," he said.

Although work continues to make bats as strong and as lively as possible, broken bats are like fielding errors or bad pitches -- part of the game.

"We can always improve what we're doing. But no matter what, there's always going to be breakage," said Drake. "This is a wooden tool used at its extreme, a strong batter using a thin handle making contact with a 100 mph fastball. Something's got to give."

Is ash better than maple? There are advantages to both, but it comes down to a matter of feel in the hands of a big league hitter.

The debate is likely to become moot, however, because stands of ash are threatened by a metallic green menace, one-half inch in length, that has destroyed 40 million ash trees in the past eight years and could wipe out all the ash trees in North America.

The voracious emerald ash borer is an exotic beetle that is native to Asia and likely hitched a ride to America in a shipping container. Since its discovery in Michigan in 2002, it has spread to 14 states and two Canadian provinces. Pennsylvania is among the states affected, and 12 counties are under quarantine.

Despite quarantines and the work of foresters, it may be too late to stop the infestation.

Manufacturers are keeping a wary eye on developments, but they have always tested new wood for making bats.

At BWP Bats, ones made of red oak are being tested by major league hitters in batting cages. But no new product can be used in games unless approved by Major League Baseball.

"We see oak as a strong alternative to ash," said Gregory. "Everybody's looking for the new mouse trap. We've also looked at yellow birch, white birch and bamboo."

In the meantime, the factory is buzzing. More than 10,000 maple and ash trees are felled each winter when the sap's not running, and the best trees can yield maybe three major league bats.

After a tree is felled, it arrives at the saw mill and eventually becomes a billet. At BWP Bats, the wood is dried in a kiln, a process that maximizes the strength of the wood at the molecular level. To convert a billet into a bat, a lathe programmed by a computer shaves the wood into shape according to the specifications on weight and length.

A total of 17 colors are available, including walnut, mahogany, black, cherry red, pink, three shades of blue, green, yellow, purple and clear. One of the final steps is applying the BWP logo.

"We are only a small part of the big picture, but yes, it's fun to be able to be a part of it. Our workers feel like they're a part of a hitter's success," Gregory said.

"There are times when I'm in a big league ballpark talking about bats and I ask myself, 'What am I doing here?' It's pretty neat."

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