Balmy Weather May Bench a Baseball Staple
By Monica Davey (The New York Times) - January 15, 2007
RUSSELL, Pa. — Careers at stake with each swing, baseball players leave little to sport when it comes to their bats. They weigh them. They count their grains. They talk to them.
But in towns like this one, in the heart of the mountain forests that supply the nation’s finest baseball bats, the future of the ash tree is in doubt because of a killer beetle and a warming climate, and with it, the complicated relationship of the baseball player to his bat.
“No more ash?” said Juan Uribe, a Chicago White Sox shortstop, whose batting coach says he speaks to his ash bats every day. Uribe is so finicky about his bats, teammates say, that he stores them separately in the team’s dugout and complains bitterly if anyone else touches them.
At a baseball bat factory tucked into the lush tree country here in northwestern Pennsylvania, the operators have drawn up a three-to-five-year emergency plan if the white ash tree, which has been used for decades to make the bat of choice, is compromised.
In Michigan, the authorities have begun collecting the seeds of ash trees for storage in case the species is wiped out, a possibility some experts now consider inevitable.
As early as this summer, federal officials hope to set loose Asian wasps never seen in this country with the purpose of attacking the emerald ash borer, an Asian beetle accused of killing 25 million ash trees in Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Maryland since it was spotted in the United States five years ago.
In late June, officials found signs of the ash borer’s arrival in Pennsylvania, setting off a new alarm for the makers of baseball bats, most of which come from this rocky, cool range on the New York border.
Along with the ash borer beetle, a warming of the local climate could also affect the ash used for bats, some scientists say. As temperatures rise, the ash wood that now makes an ideally dense but flexible bat might turn softer because of a longer growing season. Eventually, some scientists predict, the ash tree could vanish from the region.
A warmer climate could also aid the emerald ash borer’s invasion, some scientists contend, although others disagree, by creating stressed trees and the possibility of a quicker reproduction cycle in the beetle.
“We’re watching all this very closely,” said Brian Boltz, the general manager of the Larimer & Norton company, whose Russell mill each day saws, grades and dries scores of billets destined to become Louisville Slugger bats. “Maybe it means more maple bats. Or it may be a matter of using a different species for our bats altogether.”
Such uncertainty does not sit well with professional players, some of whom shun (or break) bats that have failed them and worship those that have sent balls out of the park. (Some widely suspect that the well-known players get the best-quality wood, and the rookies, something softer.) Baseball, after all, is a game of routine, of instinct, of superstition.
The magic in a perfect bat is not easy to define. “You can’t describe it — it’s a feel,” said Scott Podsednik, an outfielder for the White Sox. “When you pick it up and take a couple of swings with it, you just know.”
After batting practice one morning, Podsednik’s teammate Uribe sheepishly confirmed his lectures to his bats (his beloved “Hoosier HB 23” models). “I tell them: ‘Do your job and if you don’t do your job, I’m going to have to go back to the Dominican Republic,’ ” Uribe said in Spanish. “Sometimes they listen; sometimes they don’t.”
For much of a century, ash was the wood that ruled the realm of baseball bats, but it has faced threats before: First, competition from aluminum and composite bats (which whisked away much of the youth and amateur market but are barred from professional baseball) and then, in the past decade, from the sugar maple.
When it became known that Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants, who is closing in on baseball’s career home-run record, was using maple bats, change swept through baseball’s clubhouses.
Some bat makers say professional players are now about evenly divided between ash and maple, which is more expensive and which some players (catchers, especially) say tends to explode more violently when a bat breaks.
“Maple is all the rage with the young players coming up now,” said Tom Hellman, the clubhouse manager for the Chicago Cubs, whose responsibilities include ordering bats and keeping track of them. “But the older players still want their ash.”
Science has never definitively established whether ash makes the optimal bat. Terry Bahill, an engineer at the University of Arizona and a co-author of “Keep Your Eye on the Ball: Curveball, Knuckleballs and Fallacies of Baseball,” said researchers could measure how much energy was dissipated when a bat struck a baseball and how much force was required to bend a bat.
“But in the end,” Mr. Bahill said, “we can’t tell you which bat is going to be more effective because a human being is going to be swinging this bat. So the players making decisions about bats are making them on feelings, not scientific data.”
Some scientists, however, do see a threat to the quality of the northern white ash posed by rising temperatures over a period of decades. Ash that grows in the warmer Southeastern States is held to be softer, in part because of the longer growing season, said Ron Vander Groef, who runs a factory in Dolgeville, N.Y., which make Rawlings bats.
There are also some concerns that the numbers of white ash trees in the North could significantly decline. Louis R. Iverson, a research landscape ecologist with the United States Forest Service, has helped map how habitat changes could affect 134 tree species by the end of the century. In a worst-case scenario, the white ash (and the sugar maple) diminish in numbers and shift farther north.
Still, the emerald ash borer, or Agrilus planipennis Fairmaire, is the most immediate threat. Discovered in the United States near Detroit in 2002, the beetles, which are shiny green, will destroy a tree in two to three years. The larvae tunnel inside the trees, cutting off water and food.
The ash borer is native to Asia, where the trees are naturally resistant to it.
“It just doesn’t look good,” Dan Herms, an associate professor of entomology at Ohio State University, said of the prospect of stopping the beetle in this country. “The current technology won’t be able to stop it.”
Dr. Herms strongly disputes any link between the ash borer and climate change, saying that the beetle has survived in a wide range of temperatures in Asia.
For now, the baseball bat makers are bracing for the worst. At the mill in Russell, even as machines cranked and hummed with ash billets last month, state investigators were barring the movement of wood from four Western Pennsylvania counties after adult beetles were discovered.
Some suppliers say they are harvesting trees years earlier than planned because of the ash borer’s arrival.
In the end, baseball players may be faced with switching to, and holding conversations with, bats made of maple or some new wood yet untested by the hardball.