In juice debate, don't forget to squeeze bats


April 28, 1994|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Sun Staff Writer

With home runs leaving the park at an alarming frequency, the "juiced ball" stories again are running rampant. Instead of pitchers being wound up because of a minuscule strike zone, we're hearing tales that it's the cork centerpieces of the baseball that are wrapped too tight.

But American League umpire Al Clark has a theory that makes so much sense, you wonder why it hasn't surfaced before. What about the bat?

After all, as our good buddy John Lowenstein would explain, the bat is the weapon that propels baseballs far into the atmosphere.

"Everybody's talking about the ball being juiced up, but nobody mentions the bats," said Clark. "There's so much competition among bat companies today, I think they're tempering [treating] the wood more and more in an effort to convince players to use their bat.

"There are specifications that have to be met in making a baseball," Clark said, "but the only regulations for a bat are its size and that it be one piece of wood."

There is at least a particle of evidence that suggests Clark's reasoning has some merit. At one time the Louisville Slugger had a virtual monopoly on the major-league bat industry. But there are now three other companies -- Adirondack, Cooper and Worth -- approved to manufacture bats for big-league use.

The rule book stipulates that a ball is a "sphere formed by yarn wound over a small core of cork, rubber or similar material, covered with two strips of white horsehide or cowhide that is tightly stitched."

Its weight is no less than 5 ounces or more than 5 1/4 ounces and it's circumference no less than 9 inches, or more than 9 1/4 inches.

A bat must be "one piece of solid wood . . . not more than 2 3/4 inches in diameter at the thickest point and no more than 42 inches in length."

Period. There is no mention of lacquer, the varnish substance that is used to "finish" the wood.

The general practice has been to apply one finishing coat before a bat is shipped. But some players have requested their bats be "double-dipped" with the belief the added lacquer makes the wood harder, and thus more productive.

Last year, for the first time, Ken Griffey Jr. was among the players who had his bats double-dipped. And he gives the process partial credit for his dramatically increased home run proficiency (he hit 45 after totals of 16, 22, 22 and 27 his first four years).

It isn't known how many players, and perhaps more importantly, bat companies, subscribe to the double-dip theory, but it's safe to assume the numbers aren't decreasing. Orioles traveling secretary Phil Itzoe, whose duties include placing such orders, says that Mark McLemore is the only Oriole whose bats get the added treatment.

But the practice could become commonplace overnight, if in fact it already hasn't. It used to be that less gifted players complained that the best wood went into the bats of the superstars, leaving them with the splinters.

The next question could be about who's getting the best brand of shellac.

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