Baseball season is still young and already some fans are whining about injuries, bad luck and dumb managers who rely more on statistics than their feel for the game, or vice versa.
Baseball is a great American tradition — the smell of new-mown grass, the sound of the ball cracking into a catcher’s mitt, the crack of the bat ….
Wait, did you get one of those bats made from an ash tree worked over by the emerald ash border?
Yes, the jewel beetle from Asia has just been found in Vermont, and that’s very bad news — and not just for baseball bats. The emerald ash borer is a threat to every ash tree on the continent. It has killed tens of millions of ash trees so far in 32 states and three Canadian provinces. North America has about 8.7 billion ash trees left; only 1 percent of them are expected to survive.
As of last week, state officials have confirmed the presence of ash borers in the forests of three Vermont counties: Caledonia, Orange and Washington. It’s only a matter of time before Chittenden County and the rest of the state are infested.
The borer arrived by mistake in North America, probably inside packing crates. It debuted in the United States in Canton, Mich., in 2002 and has since spread to other parts of the continent.
The beetle is extremely efficient. “It’s a tree killer,” said Barbara Schultz, forest health program manager for the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation. “We’re not going to be able to get rid of it.”
It kills the ash tree by cutting off the flow of nutrients. Healthy ash trees typically die within one to four years of showing their first symptom of infestation.
About 5 percent of Vermont’s trees are ash. Not only are they great for baseball bats, but because the ash grows straight and tall, it creates a setting where competing trees need to do the same, resulting in delightful forests. Ash trees are highly valued for construction and cabinetry.
And, because they’re lovely, ash trees are often planted along village streets. Better line up the replacements.
But we’ve been here before. The elm tree was a stunning part of America’s cities and towns, growing tall and strong, with a canopy that spread out high above the streets. They formed an enchanting tunnel, but were so tall that they admitted plenty of light, a terrific balance of greenery and sunshine.
Dutch elm beetles arrived in the United States in 1928, probably in a shipment of logs from The Netherlands. Quarantine and sanitation practices limited Dutch elm disease to areas near New York City until World War II, when those steps were sharply curtailed — and the beetle ran wild. Of the estimated 77 million elms in North America in 1930, more than 75 percent were dead by 1989.
And, since we started with baseball, let us also mourn the demise of the Elm City Giants of New Haven, Conn., which was probably the biggest and best-known community with the nickname Elm City.
Even closer is the Elm City of Keene, N.H. Today, the nickname survives only on signs for breweries and barbershops and Rotary clubs, and Keene’s famous elms survive only in historic photographs.
But, baseball. The ash tree is prized for baseball bats because the wood flexes. When a batter hits a ball with an ash bat, there’s a trampoline effect. The ball doesn’t jump off the bat; it first compresses the wood, like a springboard, which pumps extra energy into the ball. Hitters love it. However, that springboard effect is also a flaw; that great ash bat will simply wear out as the grain delaminates.
Some hitters like maple bats, which are harder than ash; birch and bamboo bats also have their fans. But ash remains the classic.
Wooden bats, of course, were largely replaced by metal bats in youth leagues. Metal bats don’t break, which is excellent for a tight Little League budget. But for purists, there’s just something wrong with the “clang” a metal bat makes when it hits a ball, compared to the “thwack” of a wooden bat.
It’s sad to declare that we’ll lose the war when we’ve only begun to fight, but the emerald ash borer is an implacable foe. It will soon be the bottom of the ninth for the ash tree, and just like Mighty Casey, we’re going to strike out.