An offhand remark in the new WSJ interview with Bill James caught my attention:
Speaking globally ...the reality is that there are many changes in the game which could cause batting numbers to jump. And no one really knows to what extent the increase is a consequence of steroids. I strongly suspect that the influence of steroids on hitting numbers is greatly overstated by the public. ...I've never understood why nobody writes about it, but the bats are very different now than they were 20 years ago. [Barry] Bonds's bats are still different from everybody else's.
After the jump (I think this is how this works—I'm still learning the new interface), you can read my 2001 piece about those "different" bats—now a scarce commodity even amongst major leaguers because of meagre hardwood supplies and a 2003 MLB move to require manufacturers to carry millions of dollars in liability insurance. (Even Bonds couldn't obtain a fresh order of his beloved Canadian bats until earlier this month and had to use borrowed Japanese ones.)
Canadian bats in baseball's belfry
An Ottawa carpenter becomes the purveyor of lumber to Barry Bonds and fellow elite players
by Colby Cosh
Alberta Report, Nov. 5, 2001
San Francisco Giants outfielder Barry Bonds put together a season at the plate this year that might just have been the best ever—more astonishing even than the superhuman achievements of Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle. Most people already know that he hit 73 home runs during the season, which is more than anyone has hit, ever, in pro baseball. Less remarked was the bat control that enabled him to hit .328 and draw an all-time record 177 walks. Bonds not only hit with power, he reached base safely in more than half his plate appearances.
But most people do not know that he did all these things with help from some important Canadian partners. Barry Bonds and about 300 other big-leaguers use bats made by Sam Holman's Original Maple Bat Co. in Ottawa. Mr. Holman's SamBats have, entirely without fanfare, wrought a made-in-Canada revolution in the most conservative of sports. The bats are now favoured by many of the game's finest hitters; a shortlist of stars who wield them includes Troy Glaus, Magglio Ordonez, Juan Gonzalez, Gary Sheffield, Vladimir Guerrero, Jeff Bagwell and Carlos Delgado. Taken together, Holman's customers form an All-Star team that would eat any other group on the planet for breakfast.
What's really amazing is that Mr. Holman, 56, has achieved this market penetration just five years after making his first "Rideau Crusher" prototype. His bats are made of maple, not ash—a heretical choice. Few other major innovations in baseball have been adopted so quickly, or against greater odds. For most of the past century, the firm of Hillerich & Bradsby (H&B), makers of the Louisville Slugger, has simply been the batmaker. And the SamBat has entered the game at a time of distinctively high run-scoring, raising the possibility that it may have helped tilt the whole game towards the batter.
If ever there was a case of "unintended consequences," this is one. Mr. Holman, a carpenter originally from South Dakota, did not set out to make a more powerful bat, but simply a tougher one. Long-time big-league scout Bill MacKenzie, a drinking buddy, told him in a pub one night that pro clubs would be thrilled to reduce the massive expense of broken bats. "I went to the library and read up on physics and patents, but no one had considered anything but ash," he says. "I'm still kind of amazed that no one thought of using maple. But if you talk to old-time woodworkers and woodturners, they'll tell you in the same breath that maple is curly and unpredictable, but that it's the strongest wood there is. Who would use maple for a bat when they're afraid to make hammer handles out of it?"
Holman wasn't worried. He knew that maple had gotten a bad rap in the folklore, that it has a higher specific hardness than ash, and that kiln-drying techniques had improved enormously in the last quarter century. "I'm a benefactor of technology," he says. "Outside the pros, they dropped wood in favour of aluminum bats, and that killed the research. If the college teams had stuck with wood, someone would have had this idea." Working with Mr. MacKenzie, Mr. Holman produced his first maple bat in 1996 and wangled an introduction to the Blue Jays clubhouse. Joe Carter gave a SamBat a try in batting practice, and made helpful suggestions, but the wood "spoke to him" right away, Mr. Holman says.
Why are so many ballplayers making the switch from ash to maple? The bats do not come cheap; since major-leaguers are still 80% of Mr. Holman's customers, he cannot afford to give heavily discounted bats to big-leaguers as a loss leader, the way H&B does. But the bats last longer and, more importantly, their durability gives hitters a tremendous advantage in dealing with pitches on the inside of the strike zone. As college pitchers discovered to their horror with aluminum bats, an inside fastball that might have sawed off an old-style bat can be turned into a double up the line with maple. That fact alone gives SamBat hitters an important edge. It is one of the oldest of baseball maxims: if a pitcher does not own the inside corner, you own him.
There are disadvantages to maple. It cannot be milled to the same tolerances as ash, so hitters who rate exact bat weight over the size of the hitting surface may be frustrated. Moreover, it is expensive; Mr. Holman is competing with European cabinetmakers for the trees in upstate New York. But the bats are made as carefully as H&B makes theirs, and Mr. Holman has patented a new method of "cupping" the bat at the end, which some—including Bonds—say allows for a more comfortable balance.
Mr. Holman is sole owner of the Original Maple Bat Co., but a sister has invested what she calls the equivalent of four Chevy trucks. "Fortunately, she says she hasn't had to take anything into the shop, and she's had a hell of a ride all the same," he chuckles. Having won a difficult zoning battle, he is expanding the original SamBat factory in his basement into a former bar that doubled as a brothel. Even in the new location, his output will be only 300 bats a day—about 20% of H&B's production capacity. A key link in his supply chain is Ottawa's Adult Rehabilitation Centre, a workshop where mentally disabled adults turn rectangular maple blanks into rounds for his lathe. "I was too busy to keep up with the box scores when Barry was chasing the record," he says, "but boy, those guys were on top of it. I'd go up and they would say 'Did you hear? Barry hit one today!'"
With the big-league playoffs underway, Mr. Holman is still too busy to watch actual games. "I'm like the players; I only get to see highlight reels." In any event, he has customers on both sides of any conceivable series. The new Bonds record is a source of pride, but at Hillerich & Bradsby they were probably less sanguine. "I still see the guys [from H&B] at the winter meetings," says Mr. Holman, "but when people phoned them about maple bats, they used to say 'Call Sam Holman, here's his number.' I don't think they do that anymore."