My article on this battle for Harriaburg. Should run — he says, hopefully — sometime this week.
By Bob Quarteroni
“Insects all business all the time,” David Foster Wallace said in “the Pale King,” and we’re finding out just how right he was, even when it concerns a beloved game.
For the insects, there’s no such thing as play; It’s always the serious business of eating, eating, eating.
Turns out we’re in extra innings and the ultimate icon of the national pastime is in big – make that bug – trouble.
Can it survive? Let’s look at the combatants.
In one corner, weighing in at about 1/30th of an ounce, is the Emerald Ash Borer, an invasive insect that hitched a ride on – what else – wooden packing material – from Asia into Michigan in 2002.
The EAB loves ash trees, in fact it loves them to death, and it started doing that so effectively that it had munched its way into the Commonwealth by 2007. In exactly a decade, it was chewing away in all 67 Pennsylvania counties.
Female borers lay their eggs on the tree’s bark.
Once hatched, the larva munch into adults and start feasting on the leaves, followed by mating, laying more eggs, more larva and the cycle continues, weakening the tree. After three or four years of infestation, the stressed ash dies.
Nobody knows how many millions of ash trees it has killed – 40 million is a number tossed around– but it is so widespread that the ash tree is likely to suffer the same fate as the magnificent American chestnut after the ravages of the chestnut blight: “effective extinction,” defined by Wikipedia as “the reduction of a species to such low abundance that…it no longer interacts significantly with other species.”
Make no mistake, this is one very bad boy.
“The emerald ash borer is the most destructive exotic forest pest in North America since chestnut blight and Dutch elm disease, with the ability to potentially destroy the entire ash genus,” according to a forestry management plan for the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
Bullseye in all this is that beloved icon of players and sports fans: The Louisville Slugger baseball bat, the official bat of Major League Baseball, which has been made exclusively from white ash trees from the strip of land straddling northern Pennsylvania and southern New York known as the Hardwood Belt since 1884.
That was the year when Hillerich & Bradsby Co. started making superior bats from the wood of the white ash tree, which is unmatched in its ability to not crack under strain.
That’s the strain of a 100-mile an hour baseball, not the combined strain of billions of 1/30th of an ounce EABs.
“The bottom line is that those forests that Louisville Slugger uses to harvest ash and make high-quality bats are being devastated by emerald ash borer over time,” a company spokesman said.
The holy grail aspect of the Slugger cannon be underestimated. Space doesn’t permit even a cursory list of its central spot in baseball but one example is enlightening.
According to Wikipedia, “New York Yankee Derek Jeter used the P72 Louisville Slugger for every at bat in his 20 MLB seasons, with over 12,500 plate appearances. On September 25, 2014, in honor of Jeter’s impending retirement, the P72 designation was retired.”
Talk about a love story!
Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson, Roberto Clemente, Hank Aaron, George Brett and Ken Griffey Jr. all endorsed the ash wonder.
According to the Slugger history website, “Louisville Slugger has sold north of 100 million bats – making it, without question, the most popular bat brand in history.”
Especially popular, unfortunately, with the EAB.
So what’s being done to fight this? Well, Pennsylvania has an EAB management plan for communities that is so minimal in its scope that it is. as one wag said, as meaningless as Hitler’s plans for the defense of Berlin in 1945.
And I’m afraid I must agree. Saving the ash trees won’t be done in a year, or five years, or 10 with so-so efforts.
There’s going to need to be a long-term commitment to finding ash trees resistant to EAB, a battle that the protectors of the American chestnut are still fighting, more than 100 years after the chestnut blight first struck.
“I still think there’s a lot of ash left, but it’s inevitable — eventually, it seems like all the ash is going to be gone,” Michael Jacobson, professor of forest resources at Penn State told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “We just haven’t found a way to control it economically.”
As ash is imperiled, major-league baseball players have turned to bats made of maple since 2001, when San Francisco Giants left fielder Barry Bonds used one in breaking the season home run record.
There’s only one problem here: The Asian longhorned beetle native to China and Korea.
According to the Nature Conservancy, “It kills a wide variety of hardwood trees, especially maples, elms, willows, and birches. The beetle threatens to devastate forests covering approximately 48 million acres reaching from New England to beyond the Great Lakes.”
Ash, maple, the invasives have all the traditional woods on the run.
So, say all kind of bad things about them, but one thing is for sure: Aluminum bats are immune to insects.