Players can go batty in pursuit of good wood

PEORIA, Ariz. — Beauty is sometimes in the ear of the beholder.

So it looked one morning last week when a number of Mariners stopped by Ichiro's locker and had him test their bats, holding them with one hand and smacking them with the heel of the other.

He would smile and nod when he found a good one, one for Dan Wilson, one for Bret Boone and, after winking to a number of teammates looking on, pretended Edgar Martinez had a clunker.

"Bad bat," Ichiro said with a frowny face, as the others howled.

For all the humor and seemingly quaint method of finding a good stick, there is a symphony of the wood.

Asked of it, Boone held a bat close to a reporter's ear, said, "Check this out" and hit the barrel of the bat with the heel of his free hand. The wood rang, like a subdued tuning fork.

"The better the wood, the longer it rings," the infielder said. "That is one sweet bat."

That would be one sweet bat out of a half-dozen strewn on the floor at Boone's locker, as he checked their weight on a small kitchen scale.

"I started doing this because of him," Boone said, pointing two lockers down the row at Edgar Martinez, who's been weighing his bats for years. "As if I don't drive myself nuts enough already, now he's got me looking for perfect bats."

Pursuit of perfection is one of Martinez's life habits, while Boone is a little bit looser in his routines — but he'll do anything to improve his game.

"What matters is what I like to call swing weight, how the bat feels," Boone said. "Actually, some heavier bats feel lighter. I've had a difference as much as 30.5 ounces and 31.8 ounces but the heavier bat feels lighter because of the way the weight is distributed."

Martinez has been weighing his bats for years, since he opened an order (one dozen) and a bat that was supposed to weigh 31 ounces didn't feel right.

"I got a little kitchen scale and, sure enough, it was 32 ounces," Martinez said. "In fact, that order was all over the place. But that first bat was the worst I ever had, a full ounce off."

His Louisville Sluggers have had the weight written on the knob at the factory for years. "But I still weigh them," Martinez said, "and some bats are still off."

This despite the fact that, as an elite hitter for a decade, Martinez's name is on a list of people who get the best wood the bat company can provide.

Unlike Boone, he doesn't concern himself with weight distribution in his bats, probably because of the difference in models. Where Boone's are thicker their entire length, Martinez's have a thin handle and bigger barrel.

Was the bat Ichiro tested a good one?

"I can test and hear different tones," Martinez said.

"Ichiro seems to know, and how do you argue with Ichiro about hitting?"

Since Martinez breaks more bats than most players, he does order changes in his model occasionally, going to a bit thicker near the label to cut down on breakage.

"With my usual thin handle, I broke a bat in a game in Toronto once with a check swing," he recalled. "I stopped my swing and the barrel snapped off and went foul up the third-base line, like a helicopter."

Speaking of broken bats, Boone used one last year for weeks.

"It was a fabulous bat, just felt so good to swing it, but it had a crack in the handle," he said. "I hit six homers while it was cracked. And (Bob) Melvin said to me one day: 'What are you thinking, using a cracked bat?' I hit a real long homer in Philadelphia and when I got back to the dugout and I told Bob, 'Cracked bat'."

The crack kept growing up the bat and Boone kept taping higher and higher up the wood. "Then it reached the label and I couldn't go any higher with tape."

Boone would check that bat each day by smacking it with the heel of the hand, listening for the ring.

"It kept ringing so I knew I was OK to keep using it," he said. "Then one day I rapped it and it went 'duh.' I thought it was time to retire it.

"I used it one more time and I hit a pop-up. It was a ball that should have gone a mile in the air and only went half a mile; then I knew I had to put the bat away.

"It's the worst feeling to retire a great bat. You get attached to it, but what are you going to do?"

Bob Finnigan: 206-464-8276 or