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Trees and Baseball

MLB: SEP 08 Nationals at Dodgers
Ed Wolfstein/Getty Images/iStockphoto
8 September 2011: A bin full of baseball bats are ready for the players of the Washington Nationals as they host the Los Angeles Dodgers at Nationals Park in Washington, DC. The Dodgers defeated the Nationals 7-4 to take the third game of their 4-game series. Mandatory Credit: Ed Wolfstein Photo

For decades, the makers of baseball bats used wood from ash trees to provide just the right feel for hitting homers. The density and loose grain of ash wood gives the bat a “trampoline” effect, producing a boost that can drive the ball further and faster.

But recently, ash bats have been sidelined due to a tiny beetle, the Emerald Ash Borer, which was accidentally introduced to the United States from Asia in wood packing material. The larvae feed on ash tree’s inner bark, blocking the transport of water and nutrients. So far, these insects have killed over seven billion ash trees.

The beetle has spread rapidly throughout the country because here, they have no natural enemies. Researchers are exploring whether predators in the beetles’ native habitats could be brought over to control the insect spread across the country.

Ash bats also took a hit in 2001, when Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs using bats made from sugar maple trees. Suddenly, everyone wanted a maple bat. What’s the difference between these two woods? The greater density of maple wood means players can lean into hitting the ball with as much power as they can give it.

And bats are not the only way trees show up in the batter’s box. Just before they step up to home plate, most players rub sticky dabs of pine tar – derived from Scot’s pine trees — on their bat handles. It improves their grip, giving the ball more pop on contact.

Trees have been part of sports history for years, from basketball floors to golf clubs to pool cues. But baseball is one of the few sports that still relies on wood’s natural properties to play — and win — the game. Maybe we should be singing, “Root root root for the home tree.”

Dr. Nalini Nadkarni is an emeritus professor of both The Evergreen State College and the University of Utah, one of the world’s leading ecologists and a popular science communicator. Dr. Nadkarni’s research and public engagement work is supported by the National Geographic Society and the National Science Foundation. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. @nalininadkarni
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