When Pirates hitting coach Don Long tries to smile, only half his mouth gets the message. The left side sags, an inch or so below a jagged scar that runs alongside his nose.
Long used to have a warm, easy-going smile. It was ruined April 15, when he was hit in the face by a piece of Nate McLouth's broken maple bat.
"I don't think there'll be any other permanent damage," Long said. "My upper lip is still numb. But from what the doctors say, it sounds like it's going to be something that (will) heal eventually."
Long paused, and half-smiled.
"I hope that's the case."
Long's accident has drawn national attention to the problem of maple bats, which are shattering at an alarming rate. Watch any game, and you'll likely see two or more bats explode.
"Bats break, but this year has been a joke," outfielder Jason Bay said.
Unlike ash bats, which stay more or less together when they splinter, maple bats explode. The shower of projectiles puts players, umpires, coaches and fans at risk.
"Something's got to be done," Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "It's getting more dangerous out there. You even see them going into the stands."
Less than two weeks after Long was struck, a fan at Dodger Stadium also was injured by a shattered bat. The woman, who was sitting four rows behind the visitor's dugout, had her jaw shattered in two places.
Three weeks ago, Freddy Sanchez was twirling a maple bat in the on-deck circle at PNC Park when it suddenly snapped. The barrel spun straight up and back, and fortunately was snagged by the netting behind home plate.
"Those maple bats are funny," Pirates manager John Russell said. "They shatter pretty quick when you get a (crack) -- especially in the black bats, where you can't always see the spot where it's cracked."
Thin handles, which players crave to create more torque, might be one cause of the trouble. But maple bats frequently break at the barrel, too.
A week ago during a game against the Pirates, the bat of St. Louis Cardinals outfielder John Mather cracked apart at the label and sprayed around the infield.
"It was almost a clean break, like somebody took a saw to it," Long said.
The obvious solution would be to ban maple bats, but Major League Baseball cannot do that without the consent of the players' association. Officials from MLB and the union will meet June 24 to discuss the issue.
Other options include mandating thicker handles, allowing maple to be used only in batting practice and adding more protective screens.
"I'm concerned about it, and it's under review," commissioner Bud Selig said.
It will take more than Selig's concern and the union's OK to enact any kind of change. A vast majority of players in the majors - - some estimates range as high as 70-80 percent -- use maple bats. Barry Bonds was one of the first players to use a maple bat, and it gained in popularity after Bonds hit a record 73 home runs in 2001. …