Bruce Walton is a seasoned baseball veteran, in his 16th season with the Toronto Blue Jays, his third as the team’s pitching coach.
Walton understands one of the game’s cardinal rules of never taking your eye off the batter when he is at work taking hacks in the batter’s box.
Despite all that experience, it still didn’t prevent the 49-year-old from almost being skewered in the head by the splintered barrel after the bat of Toronto’s Edwin Encarnacion blew apart when he stroked a single in the first inning of Thursday’s game against the Seattle Mariners.
As it was, Walton – who was sitting within the Blue Jays dugout – just managed to raise both his arms in front of his face at the last possible moment to fend off the broken wooden projectile that advanced on him at an alarmingly fast rate.
“It was just like someone swung a bat and hit me as hard as they could with the barrel of the bat,” Walton said on Friday before Toronto’s game against the Boston Red Sox at Rogers Centre.
It was a bat made of maple, whose use at the major-league level continues to be a contentious one as maple bats break at an alarming, not to mention dangerous, rate.
Toronto manager John Farrell, for one, believes that something needs to be done, perhaps even an outright ban on maple bats, before a tragedy unfolds.
“I think it’s just a matter of time before someone else gets impaled,” Farrell said.
Earlier this year, Chicago Cubs pitcher Casey Coleman was struck by a shattered bat fragment 60 feet from home plate. Umpire Jerry Layne took a piece of a broken bat off his jaw while he was working home plate.
Back toward the end of the 2010 season, Cubs rookie Tyler Colvin was impaled by a piece of shattered bat as he ran from third base to home. The broken bat actually punctured Colvin’s chest wall, landing him in hospital.
The Walton incident, Farrell said, is one of many close shaves he has witnessed with disintegrating maple bats.
“I’ve seen others,” he said. “I’ve seen pitchers get hit. I’ve seen David Price take one in the left forearm one day in spring training. Watch enough highlights, there’s close calls every night.”
“If we can’t improve upon them I think the current state [of maple bats] are dangerous.”
Walton was back at work on Friday, but not after a few anxious moments the night before when the force of the blow sent him crashing to the ground for a few moments before he left the game and went to hospital for precautionary X-rays.
They all came back, thankfully, negative, although Walton has a couple of sore forearms for his trouble.
“I was watching Eddie hit, and I still almost got it,” Walton said, surprisingly good-naturedly.
Major League Baseball took some steps a couple of years ago to try to regulate the use of maple bats, whose popularity skyrocketed among players after Barry Bonds used them (among other things, apparently) to belt out a single-season-record 71 home runs in 2001.
Maple is lighter than ash, which had been the standard for bats, and players took to it because it helped increase their bat speed.
Two years ago, the MLB dictated new changes in bat dimensions for maple bats at the major-league level and banned the use of certain types of maple bats in the minor leagues.
While the changes have helped reduce the number of broken bats, Walton’s incident is proof that there is still work to be done.
Toronto catcher J.P. Arencibia uses a maple bat, but he insisted he really has no preference between using a maple or ash bat.
He was asked if he thought maple bats posed a danger.
“I think all wooden bats are kind of dangerous,” he said. “I think maple breaks more than they shatter. Ash bats kind of splinter and don’t break off as clear.”
But Arencibia said he is not ready to change – at least not yet.