I don't want to wax mystical and metaphysical about this, but . . .
Stop. I want to wax. If an American boy can't get all worked up about a genuine "powerized" Louisville Slugger baseball bat, what use is the First Amendment's guarantee of the free exercise of religion?
When Thomas Aquinas was ginning up proofs of God's existence, he neg- lected to mention the ash tree. It is the source of the Louisville Slugger, and hence is conclusive evidence that a kindly Mind superintends the universe.
The Big Bang got the universe rolling and produced among the celestial clutter one planet, Earth, enveloped in an atmosphere that causes rain to patter on Pennsylvania ridgetops where ash trees grow. They grow surrounded by other trees that protect the ash trees from wind-twisting and force them to grow sraight toward sunlight. The result is wood with the perfect strength required for the musical "crack!" that is the sound the cosmos makes each spring when it clears its throat and says, "We made it."
'Tis spring and a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of . . . well, to that, too, but also to baseball and its instruments. Baseballs are made in Haiti, and many gloves are made in the Orient, but the bats that put people on the path to Cooperstown are made, one at a time, where you would expect: in mid- America.
Wood lathes at Hillerich & Bradsby's "Slugger Park" plant take just eight seconds to make a bat for the masses. But craftsmen -- the junior member of the work force has 17 years' seniority -- take longer to make bats for such artists as the Baltimore Orioles' Mike Young (the 1986 American League MVP -- you read it first here). The bat- makers must take care. Ted Williams once returned a batch of bats because the grips did not feel right. They were found to be 5/1,000 of an inch wrong.
Hillerich & Bradsby charges $12 for each major leaguer's bat, and loses about $13 on the deal. They do it for the prestige. They must have been relieved when Orlando Cepeda retired. He used to discard a bat after getting a hit. His reasoning (in which I find no flaw) was that there are only so many hits in a bat; you cannot tell how many there are in a bat; and he did not want to risk using a bat from which all the hits had been taken. (My father, although he used to teach logic, does not understand that, or this: It is dreadful to win a spring-training game, because a team is only going to win so many games in a year, and why waste one in Florida?)
The production of real bats here has declined because of a monstrous development -- the popularity of aluminum bats. Hillerich & Bradsby makes such ersatz Sluggers, but commits that unnatural act in southern California, a region of novelties and regrets.
Colleges, those incubators of heresies, use aluminum bats for a grotesque reason: they last longer. But immortality is not a virtue in things that should not exist at all. Because metal bats are livelier than wooden bats, they distort the game. Scoring soars, 200-minute games become common, and some teams -- yes, teams -- have batting averages over .350. (In 1979, Wichita State batted .384.) Aluminum bats in the big leagues would produce every fan's ultimate nightmare: a blizzard of asterisks in the record book, denoting records set after baseball became subservient to the science of metallurgy.
People who will not recognize tradition as a sufficient argument should bow to aesthetic as well as scientific considerations. Aluminum hitting horsehide makes a sound as grating as fingernails scraping a blackboard. If the sound of the aluminum bat were a food, it would be lima beans. Imagine a balmy summer evening, the portable radio on the front porch emitting the soft cicada-like sizzle of crowd noise. The announcer says: "Here's the pitch -- and the runner is off at the ping of the bat!" "Ping"? The prosecution rests.
A. Ray Smith never rests. Louisville, like renaissance Florence, is not especially large but is immoderately drenched with the finest art of its century, which in the case of Louisville is baseball. A. Ray (to know him for five minutes is to be on a first name -- well, initial and first name -- basis) is the reason God made Oklahoma, where he did well in what Oklahomans call the oil bidness. Now he is doing good in Kentucky, giving the community baseball.
A. Ray, an ebullient fellow, has not got the word from French philosophers that angst is the right response to the 20th century. But it is hard to get the hang of existential despair when your Triple-A Louisville Redbirds recently drew 1,062,000 fans, more than five major-league teams.
A few of those fans probably were craftsmen from Slugger Park who came to the ballpark to see their handiwork put to work. Imagine, working amidst ash chips, which smell better than bacon in the morning. It is enough to make a boy wax poetical: I think that I shall never see a tree as lovely as what folks here make from some of them.