Big leaguers have love-hate affairs with bats
Recent conversation overheard in the Toronto Blue Jays’ dugout:
Player: Hey, you got any hits in that bat?
Player B: Nah, this one’s 0-for-3.
Asked later about it, Vernon Wells rolls his eyes: "Oh yeah, the bat’s 0-for-3."
Around this time, 141 years ago, Harry Wright sent a member of the Cincinnati Red Stockings up to face some rounder from a semi-pro team to look at the first pitch ever tossed to a fully professional baseball player.
A few minutes later, that guy, or one just like him in silly short pants and red dyed stirrup socks, swung and registered the first strike in pro ball history.
We can speculate that he then swore, stared at the bat, and called it all sorts of names unacceptable in polite society, even one that had so recently been savaged by a bloody civil war.
Thus was born the difficult and complicated relationship between a man and his bat. Or bats.
Lots of bats, actually, because major leaguers can take delivery of a dozen at a time and, once they’ve finished feeling them, eyeing them, stoning them, sanding them, listening to them, tarring them and praying to them, they will likely choose just two or three to be their "gamers."
The rest are consigned to batting practice or used as autographed giveaways for friends, family, admirers and that guy up in the fifth row whom our hero just beaned with a broken "gamer" bat that got away from him.
Did he just say listened to it?
Cito Gaston (Louisville Slugger, models P72, P55 and S2) says so, and he was there.
"I used to see Roberto Clemente … he used to shake his bat, before he hit … shake it … put it down, pick one up and shake it … then he’d pick one out and go up and hit," says the Toronto manager, who played in the National League at the same time as the Pittsburgh Pirates hall of fame legend.
Did you ask him why?
"No, I didn’t ask him that. I knew Roberto, too, and I could have asked him, but I didn’t," Gaston says. "He was probably just feeling it, probably had it close to his ear (listening) when he was doing it.
"Because all bats are not the same, very seldom do they feel the same."
Best bat I ever had — Part 1
"I had a bat in the minor leagues that lasted me the whole summer. I only used it for batting practice, then it broke about a week left in the season – that was my September call up [to the majors] in ’06, and it broke just before the season ended."
— Adam Lind, Jays designated hitter.
Adam Lind (Old Hickory AP1) says whatever you do to a bat, if it works then it’s not crazy. Personally, he chats with his.
"I talk to it when I’m on deck," he says, relaxing in front of his locker, pre-game. "I stare at it and say ‘please work.’ "
Lind shakes his head, thinking of his .213 batting average as of Tuesday, down from .320 in 2009. "Not this year."
At least not right now.
Pitchers can get annoyed at bats, too, he recalls.
"When I was in AA, our team wasn’t hitting real well, so before a game all of our bats were in the bat rack and [one of the pitchers] threw them on the ground – every bat – to try and wake them up."
"I don’t know if it worked that day, but our bats came alive shortly after that."
When you have a good bat, and it finally breaks, it can be an emotional time.
"There’s a moment of silence if I’ve had a good run with it," Lind says, smiling.
Best bat I ever had — Part 2
"It was in the minor leagues. It was short season A ball, in my first year in Miss oula, and it lasted at least a month, if not a month and a half. It had … two knots, right on the barrel, right there (gestures) … I used it, I think I remember, that month of July in ’99. I think I had 53 RBIs. And it was all that bat. I was sad to see it go."
— Lyle Overbay, Jays first baseman.
What finally happened was Overbay (Louisville Slugger P72, 34 and 32) hit one right off the tip of the bat and it cracked as the ball went for an out. That’s what really hurt.
"Usually you are alright with [breaking] it, if you get a hit with it and it goes down a winner. A champion, I guess," he says. "But it didn’t this time. It had plenty of hits, so I was very sad to see it go."
The whole approach of stoning a bat (rubbing a smooth rock over it is supposed to harden the surface) or pine tarring it, or rubbing bone on it, or shaving down the barrel, doesn’t impress Overbay much.
Though understand, he means for himself, not for anyone else. If someone wants to sleep with a bat and it seems to help, he’s all for it.
But on the question of outies and innies, now there’s a point for discussion.
In the 1970s someone came up with the bright idea of hollowing out the tip of the bat to save an ounce or so in weight. "Cupped" bats caught on, and Overbay was one of their adherents.
Until he ran into Houston’s Lance Berkman in an off-season and the Astros star pointed out that extra little knob on the tip of the bat might just buy you an extra hit here, and another one there.
And in a sport where the difference between hitting .250 and .300 is one lousy hit a week (as Crash Davis taught us), that was worth thinking about.
So Overbay switched back. But that’s just him. Some players still think non-cupped makes the bat top heavy and they won’t use them.
One other point. If a guy is going really good, like say Aaron Hill was last season (.286, 108 RBI), others will start to ask about his bat. Or maybe borrow one.
No one is asking this year with Hill hitting under .200. Must be the bat.
Don’t believe it? In 2001 when Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs with a new fangled maple wood bat, more than half the players in the majors switched from ash.
Then word got around that maple broke more quickly (and spectacularly) than ash, so the switch began to reverse.
But ash trees may be disappearing because of the emerald ash borer beetle and you might suddenly not be able to get any. And maple is harder and the ball may travel further (not proven by science, by the way). But maple doesn’t have grains to count and ash does. But Ash seems to break less often. Blah blah blah.
Best bat I ever had — Part 3
"I remember having a bat that went for a month. I didn’t use it in batting practice, only in the game. And it just went for a while …didn’t break it. When you broke it, you went ‘aww,’ I broke my bat.’ "
--Dwayne Murphy, Blue Jays’ hitting coach (Aww seems a big-time expletive for the coach, by the way). .
Murphy (Louisville Slugger, C243) played 12 years in the bigs and now teaches major leaguers two key things – how to stay hot when they’re hot, and how to get hot when they’re not.
He knows it’s mostly confidence. Guys will, he says, believe anything. Including it can’t be me, it must be the bat.
"You get hooked on these bats," Murphy says. "[For some] it’s all about the grain – how many lines [of grain] are in the bat. You see bats shatter and break and guys come back to the dugout and they say they scored that bat – they hit it right on the barrel – and it still broke."
Bats are getting lighter and lighter (Babe Ruth used a 42 inch, 42 ounce battle club, now the average weight is just over 33 ounces) and yes, a player can tell if it’s just an ounce wrong either way.
Justin Morneau, of Minnesota, is said to weigh every bat he gets out of a box on the postal scale in the team’s office. If any are more than .3 of an ounce off, either way, they’re dumped.
Murphy understands that. Heck, guys will scrape the pine tar off the bat because they think it’s making the bat too heavy.
Best bat I ever had — Part 4
"The best one I ever had was the last bat I used in 1970. The last game of the season I used it and it went 4-for-4. That was a good bat."
— Cito Gaston.