WARREN, N.J. — Curiously enough, it began one day when Ward A.R. Dill looked out his window and saw that an apple tree branch had fallen in his yard. With a love for woodworking that dates back to his teenage years, the 56-year-old Dill took it inside and placed it on his lathe, only to realize that it was far too unseasoned to use for any artistic purpose. So he spliced it into 50 wedges and created a vase, which he liked well enough to duplicate later in cherry for his wife. Gazing upon it as he held it in his hands, it occurred to him how strong the design appeared.
And it was then that "a light bulb” clicked on in his head. The baseball fan in him began to think: "I wonder what this would look like as a bat?”
"Suddenly, I had this cascade of thoughts,” says Dill, who attended the University of Massachusetts as an undergraduate and earned a graduate degree at MIT. "I had never been a fan of the metal bat but understood the cost efficiency of them. But as I looked at the vase closely, I began to think that if I cut the wedges correctly and glue them together so there is a tight grain all around, it could be far more durable than the traditional wooden bat.”
Quickly, Dill sprang into action to prove his theory. In less than two weeks, he had come up with the prototype for what he would call the "Radial Bat,” which consists of 12 wedges of wood glued together to form a hitting surface of 1.4 inches. To try it out, the former high school player took it to a local batting cage and hit 240 balls thrown at 79 mph. He developed a blister on his hand, but in the 2 1 / 2 years that followed has become convinced that he had been correct in his initial hypothesis: That the Radial Bat had the same properties of a traditional bat carved from a single piece of wood but without the high degree of breakage.
That is not to say that the Radial Bat does not crack — it does — but Dill contends that it does so less frequently and without the splintering that can be so hazardous to fielders and fans. Says Dill, founder of the Radial Bat Company based in north-central Warren, N.J., "How often have we seen it where the ball goes one way and a jagged piece of the bat flies off in another direction?”
Well … too often. Splintered bats have been flying every which way, some of which have caused nasty injuries. While this is not entirely a new phenomenon (Phillies batting coach Milt Thompson remembers seeing a fan in Atlanta "stabbed” in the arm with a broken bat in 1984), the subject began to attract attention last year in light of some incidents.
Pirates batting coach Don Long was struck below his eye by a flying piece of wood and required 10 stitches to close the wound. A woman seated behind the Dodgers dugout was hit in the cheek by a shattered bat and required surgery on her jaw. And home plate umpire Brian O’Nora was forced to leave a game in Kansas City with blood running down his face when a broken bat flew back and struck him in the forehead.
Major League Baseball commissioned a study last year and found the breakage rate to be just under one per game. While MLB has adopted changes in hopes of promoting safety in maple bats, including the placement of the label across the side grain (which would thus encourage batters to hit with the wide grain), we have seen accidents crop up again this year.
Home plate umpire Kerwin Danley was wheeled off the field on a stretcher when a broken bat hit him in the head during a Blue Jays-Rangers game in April; he was diagnosed at the hospital with a concussion. Cubs farmhand Jake Fox required five stitches and was sidelined for two games when he was struck in the leg with a broken bat in May. And in Toronto just a week later a fan behind the third-base dugout was hit in the back of the head; he was treated by onsite personnel and returned to his seat.
So, should it be a safety concern? Ask Phillies manager Charlie Manuel.
"Heck, (pitching coach Rich) Dubee and I came close to getting hit twice the last couple of years,” Manuel says. "One hit the dugout wall over our heads. The other landed between us.”
An explanation can be found in the type of wood that has become so popular among players: maple. For years, players exclusively used ash bats, which cracked but did not explode into pieces. But only about 35 percent of the players still use an ash bat instead of the maple models, which have increased in popularity since Barry Bonds had such success with them during his home-run quest.
While Dill says that maple is 12 percent heavier than ash, he says that manufacturers try to lower the moisture content of the wood.