What do Major League Baseball players have in common with forest products researchers? They're all preoccupied with, well, wood. Recently, the focus has been on tree-eating bugs and exploding baseball bats.
Major League Baseball players often follow certain rituals or have superstitions about hitting. Some players forego shaving or changing certain articles of clothing while on a hitting streak.
So it would figure that players are particular about the kind of bats they swing, and since we're talking Major League Baseball, it's all about the wood.
Baseball bats made from ash have been the traditional favorite, but ever since Barry Bonds used a maple bat to hit 73 homeruns during the 2001 season, maple has become the bat of choice for many players. It must have been the bat.
A few hours before the Twins take the field at the Metrodome, Twins hitting coach Joe Vavra is behind the batting cage listening to batting practice. He said there's no real difference between the sounds made by an ash bat and a maple bat, nor is there a difference in how far a ball travels from a bat made from the different types of wood. Vavra wants to hear the sound of a good, solid slap. That's when the ball is hitting the sweet spot.
Vavra said most Twins hitters are swinging maple bats, with the notable exception of Joe Mauer. Mauer, who has won two American Leauge batting titles and is chasing his third, swings ash. Others are just looking for a bat they think will get them more hits - like outfielder Carlos Gomez.
Gomez often whispers to his bat as he steps to the plate. Vavra suspects Gomez is encouraging it to introduce itself to the baseball.
"It's pretty comical," Vavra said. "Then he smells the bat after a foul ball. He smells the wood. There's kind of a burn smell that they smell. He kind of has to smell it a little bit to find where that burn mark was."
Vavra says the burn mark helps Gomez determine how far the ball was from the sweet spot or the center of the barrel of the bat. That way he can make adjustments.
Twins first baseman Justin Morneau has been known to hit a tater or two or 26. That's the number of homers he has so far this year. Last year he won the home run contest during the All Star break. Morneau said he prefers maple because it's more durable than ash.
"They last longer and if you get a bat that you feel good with, it can last for three weeks if you don't break it," Morneau said. "Ash tends to fray, if you use it for about a week."
When maple bats break, they shatter - turning the fragments into flying lawn darts. The shards have injured players, umpires and fans. So Major League Baseball recently called on researchers at the USDA's forestry products lab to look into it.
Researcher Dave Ketchmann said maple shatters because its shorter fibers are brittle.
"Really what's going on with the shorter fibers is it's not able to resist the same amount of energy that something with longer fibers is," Ketchmann said.
Other experts complain it's the design of bats. It's the skinny handles and large barrels that make bats break.
Besides the occasional exploding bat, there is another potential threat to the game: the emerald ash borer. The ash borer is an insect eating its way through the nation's ash trees.
For most of Major League Baseball's history, bats have been made from ash. The largest producer of bats, Louisville Slugger in Kentucky, uses white ash grown in Pennsylvania and New York. The emerald ash borer has not been found there, yet. Dave Ketchmann said the bat maker is keeping an eye out for it.
"The short answer is they're not concerned now, but they do see a problem coming," Ketchmann said.
The bug is already in Minnesota and the state has quarantines in place to stop its spread. According to the state's quarantine order, a company like Louisville Slugger would have to prove its products were bug-free before shipping them.
For now, USDA researchers say neither the bug, nor the restrictions will prevent companies like Louisville Slugger from making ash bats, and fortunately for Twins fans, it will not prevent sluggers like Joe Mauer from swinging them.