Thursday, July 12, 2007

Ashes to Bashes to Ashes?

The Louisville Slugger may fall to an Asian bug:

Careers at stake with each swing, baseball players leave little to sport when it comes to their bats. They weigh them. They count their grains. They talk to them.

But in towns like this one, in the heart of the mountain forests that supply the finest baseball bats, the future of the ash tree is in doubt because of a killer beetle and a warming climate, and with it, the complicated relationship of the baseball player to his bat.

"No more ash?" said Juan Uribe, a Chicago White Sox shortstop, whose batting coach says he speaks to his bats every day. Uribe is so finicky, teammates say, that he stores his bats separately in the team's dugout and complains bitterly if anyone else touches them.

At a baseball bat factory tucked into the lush tree country here in northwestern Pennsylvania, the operators have drawn up a three-to-five-year emergency plan if the white ash tree, which has been used for decades to make the bat of choice, is compromised.

In Michigan, the authorities have begun collecting the seeds of ash trees for storage in case the species is wiped out, a possibility some experts consider inevitable.

....the emerald ash borer, or Agrilus planipennis Fairmaire, is the most immediate threat. Discovered in the United States near Detroit in 2002, the beetles, which are shiny green, will destroy a tree in two to three years. The larvae tunnel inside the trees, cutting off their water and food.

The ash borer is native to Asia, where the trees are naturally resistant to it.

"It just doesn't look good," Dan Herms, an associate professor of entomology at Ohio State University, said. "The current technology won't be able to stop it."

Herms strongly disputes any link between the ash borer and climate change, saying that the beetle has survived in a wide range of temperatures in Asia.

The bat makers are bracing for the worst. At the mill in Russell, even as machines cranked and hummed with ash billets last month, state investigators were barring the movement of wood from four Western Pennsylvania counties after adult beetles were discovered.

Some suppliers say they are harvesting trees years earlier than planned because of the ash borer's arrival.

In the end, baseball players may be faced with switching to, and holding conversations with, bats made of maple or some wood yet untested by the hardball.

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