More players going batty for tougher bats

Some swear that sugar maple baseball bats, harder and heavier than ash, make the ball fly.

For The Record

October 28, 2001|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Sun Staff

Those aren't bats swooping down from the belfries and rafters of Bank One Ballpark in Phoenix this weekend. Not the mammalian kind, anyway.

Those black, winged creatures you see perched on the bats being swung by at least two heavy hitters in this year's World Series are not Halloween decorations either. Like the famed Louisville Slugger oval on most major league bats, it is a logo -- for a tiny Canadian bat manufacturer that calls them "Sam Bats."

Carved since 1997 in a converted garage in Ottawa by carpenter Sam Holman, they are different in at least one other major way, too: They are made of Canadian sugar maple instead of the white ash used by just about every other maker of wooden bats, including industry giant Hillerich & Bradsby Co. of Louisville Slugger fame.

Some hitters swear they make the ball go farther. Among them is Barry Bonds, a devoted Sam batter who used them this year to bash 73 home runs and assume the throne of baseball's home-run king.

Holman got the idea of introducing unconventional lumber to the convention-bound sport at the library. He'd gone there after a chance encounter at a tavern with a friend, a baseball scout. Over beers, the scout had complained about the fragility of baseball bats. The average major leaguer goes through 70 to 100 of them each season, usually splintering them along the narrow handle.

He challenged Holman to use the knowledge he had acquired as a carpenter and stagehand for Ottawa's national theater to come up with something more durable.

Holman, who developed an interest in woodworking while whittling tiny race cars as a youth in South Dakota, found an old engineering text at Ottawa's transportation library. Included were charts on the properties of various types of wood.

Maple was not recommended for bridges, for example, because it doesn't stand up well to weather. But its density was higher than that of ash. That means maple is harder and heavier -- something Holman, a Little League washout and college English major, thought surely would aid batters.

"Most of them use bats that would be classified as a 1950 chassis," Holman says. "The batters are big engines, but they are driving a bat that is too big and too slow." (The bat maker followed Formula One racing, not baseball, as a youngster and still favors its metaphors.)

His first client was Joe Carter, an All-Star slugger then playing for the Toronto Blue Jays. Carter liked the bats so much he brought a bunch to spring training the next year, 1998, after he was signed by the Orioles. He convinced his teammate, Cal Ripken Jr., to give one a try in batting practice.

"Cal missed with his first four swings, and then hit one all the way to the Ft. Lauderdale airport," Holman says.

Ripken wasn't sold on the new wood, but others were intrigued. The Orioles became the first team to order a gross of Sam Bats.

This season, Holman's Original Maple Bat Co. provided bats to about 350 major leaguers. Among them: Yankees second baseman Alfonso Soriano and Diamondbacks outfielder Steve Finley. Yankees utility man Enrique Wilson is also a Sam Bat man; outfielder Paul O'Neill is a lapsed one, having gone back to ash.

Each Sam Bat is custom-made. They can be stained in a variety of colors, including red, green and iridescent black, and sell for $50 to $65 each, not including shipping. They can be ordered online at, and have been sanctioned by both Little League and Major League baseball.

Holman thinks the advantage of maple is simple. First, it is stronger, so a major leaguer can get through a season with as few as 25 bats. Also, because it is denser, it can be fashioned into a bat that achieves a desired weight with less diameter, meaning it can be swung faster and it will have a longer "sweet spot." That's the elusive spot on the bat where the inertia of the swing is most efficiently transferred to the ball.

Experts, though, aren't so sure. Robert Adair, a Yale University physicist and author of The Physics of Baseball, says, "I'm skeptical."

Maple is heavier, which may extend the sweet spot along the length of the bat. But the narrower barrel shortens the spot's height, creating a tradeoff, Adair says.

"The hardness," he says, "is not important."

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign physicist and sports science expert Alan M. Nathan says he would like to try bending some Sam Bats in a laboratory. He wonders if the narrower cut makes the bat bend back and spring forward more on contact with the ball, creating a "trampoline effect" that knocks the ball further.

"There might be some marginal advantage," Nathan says. "My guess is it made very little difference for Bonds."

Such skepticism has not deterred Holman. Two weeks ago, he moved his factory from the garage to an old bar in downtown Ottawa and is struggling to keep up with demand. Last year he sold 7,000 bats; this year, he's up to 20,000, and estimates he may sell as many as 300,000 bats by 2003.

"The future looks very bright for us if we can keep up," Holman says. "The good Lord put many trees in the forest."

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