Washington Nationals Leftfielder Adam Dunn
(June 2009)

As anyone who has followed the sad progress of the steroids scandal in major league baseball knows, professional ballplayers will seldom pass up a new way to get a competitive edge, and many of them will risk their own health, criminal charges and the reputation of their sport if the edge is great enough.

One relatively new and unregulated way for batters to get an edge is by using bats made of maple rather than ash, which for decades was the wood used for almost all baseball bats. Maple is closer-grained than ash, making it about 20% harder. A harder bat surface means harder-hit line drives and longer fly balls. But maple does not flex like ash, so the bats have a tendency to break…indeed, they shatter. While maple bats have gained in popularity, the number of broken bats per game has soared, as has the frequency of jagged bat fragments flying toward fielders or into the stands.

Many broadcasters, coaches and seasoned observers of the game warn that maple bats are a menace, a tragedy waiting to happen. But they are popular with players, and widely believed to lead to more hits and runs. Predictably, the baseball brass, the same brass that looked the other way as steroids turned star players into cheats, freaks and felons, is dragging its collective weasel-like feet on the maple bat issue, subjecting the issue to slow, careful, “study.” If history is any guide, the study will continue until a child in the stands has her throat ripped open by a flying maple splinter.

One player, at least, isn’t waiting. Washington Nationals leftfielder Adam Dunn, one of the most prolific home run hitters in the major leagues last season, told Washington Post columnist Tom Boswell that he had given up maple for ash.

"Maple is too dangerous … I switched last June," Dunn told Boswell. "Those bats shatter. One of them is going to end up sticking out of somebody’s neck. Maybe in the stands. I’m not being that guy that did it."

"Using the ash probably does take away some homers,” he continued. “If you don’t quite get it, miss it a little, it doesn’t go as far. I’ll take one, two, three less homers and not have my name on the barrel of the bat sticking in somebody.”

Extra home runs mean more money, especially to a player like Dunn, for whom hitting home runs is his primary claim to stardom. In some professions, choosing the safety of others over personal gain might be the norm, but not in professional sports. Dunn appears to be the first and only player to willingly give up homers and runs batted in to avoid hurting someone.

That’s qualification enough for an Ethics Hero.

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