Baseball’s Bug Problem
Posted By Katherine Rogers On April 6, 2009 @ 9:55 am In Cover Stories,Sports
Steroids. Huge payrolls. Overinflated ticket prices. Add a new crisis for Major League Baseball: a tiny Asian import named the emerald ash borer. This beetle, discovered in Michigan in 2002, has quickly ravaged forests from there to Ohio, Indiana, and Maryland, killing tens of millions of white ash trees — the same type used by Louisville Slugger to make MLB’s official bats.
Bats can be made from other lumber (until recently half the league used maple), but ash is now the preferred material. “Ash is perfect for making bats,” says Louisville Slugger vice-president Rick Redman. “It’s a hard wood with good grain structure, so when it breaks it doesn’t explode, it just cracks. Players who migrated to maple are coming back to ash.”
Unfortunately, so is the emerald ash borer. Louisville Slugger harvests uninfected trees in Pennsylvania, but the beetle has been found just 100 miles away. “We’ve been harvesting wood for over 100 years,” says Redman. “We’ve survived floods, fires, and a lot of other issues. Now we’re trying to survive insects.”
“Nonnative pests harm our trees in ways native insects do not,” says Frank Lowenstein, deputy team leader for Nature Conservancy’s Global Invasive Species Initiative. “Trees have no resistance, and predators don’t feed on them, meaning they cannot be wiped out.”
The worst case scenario: Louisville Slugger says it could import its ash from China, or start using other woods. Lowenstein finds no solace in that. “At the turn of the 20th century, many bats were made of elm and chestnut,” he says. “Now we’ve lost nearly all of those trees. Of 16 species of ash in North America, we’re looking at the loss of all 16. Anywhere in the country you are looking at an ash tree, those will be gone,” possibly within 30 years. To try to quarantine the insect, the Department of Agriculture is urging people to burn firewood only near its origin.
This article originally appeared in the April 2009 issue of Men’s Journal.
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