Wooden Bats Find Their Niche

With young players who want to hit like Major Leaguers, and proposals to ban metal bats popping up around the country, wood bats have been winning new converts.

ROGERS, Minn. (AP) -- When 13-year-old Brandon Meyer steps to the plate for his youth baseball team, he wields a $250 bat of space-age aluminum. In practice, though, young Brandon goes old school, choosing a wooden bat that helps hone his swing for when he needs it most.

"It helps you get your muscles stronger," said Meyer, 13, of Elk River. "It makes aluminum way lighter so you can just smash the baseball."

With young players who want to hit like Major Leaguers, and proposals to ban metal bats popping up around the country, wood bats have been winning new converts. Instead of settling for a $25 mass-produced ash bat, more top players are ordering more durable custom bats that cost as much as $100, often made on the same lathes and from the same maple as the bats swung in the big leagues.

Companies including MaxBat, the Brooten-based company that made Meyer's bats; Xbats of Las Vegas; Old Hickory Bat Co. of Nashville, Tenn.; and The Original Maple Bat Corp. of Ontario, Canada -- maker of SamBats -- are marketing hundreds of color combinations and laser etching to attract Little Leaguers who want to swing the same bats as their big league idols.

"That is the best advertising that there is," said Paul Johnson, vice president of MaxBat. "People continually see several big-name players using our bats on TV."

Industry-wide figures aren't available, but Jack Kasarjian, president of Xbats, said last year his company sold about 8,500 youth bats at about $100 each. Four years ago, they sold about 4,000.

Johnson said MaxBat expects to ship about 20,000 bats for under-18 players this year and another 10,000 for adults.

"Our main youth business is with high school-age kids that want to train with wood or play in an area that only uses wood," he said. "More places are banning aluminum, so I expect the numbers to climb."

Of course, aluminum bats aren't going away. They're lighter, more durable than wood and they are generally believed to hit the ball farther -- particularly the highly engineered versions that sell for hundreds of dollars.

Many groups believe those aluminum bats hit the ball so hard it's not safe for young infielders. High school leagues in New York City and in North Dakota have moved to ban their use, and other states and cities have considered it. Little League Baseball International Inc. says there's no scientific evidence that the game would be safer if played only with wood bats.

"It's insane what they've done, it's like shooting it out of a cannon," said Mark "Lunch" McKenzie, the hitting coach of the under-18 US national team.

McKenzie, also the head baseball coach of Concordia University in St. Paul, said he encourages young hitters to practice with wood bats because they have a smaller sweet spot than aluminum. That ultimately makes them better hitters, he said.

"With the wood, it exposes you," McKenzie said. "That bat won't lie to you. An aluminum bat will lie to you."

The major custom bat makers trace their roots to the furniture business, where custom jobs are common. Old Hickory's owner started in the furniture business, and Xbats figured out how to do fast customization by hiring workers laid off from high-end furniture makers, Kasarjian said.

Johnson's company, MaxBat, was spun off from Glacial Wood Products in Brooten, which bills itself as the largest custom wood-turning facility in the country. "I've been doing wood turning since 1991," Johnson said. "I think that's an advantage, having a lot of knowledge of wood."

At MaxBat's factory in Brooten, a small central Minnesota town, orders come in via the company's Web site. Customers pick from over 500 color combinations and three logo colors, and can have their names laser-engraved on their bat.

A worker feeds the order into a computer-controlled lathe that cuts the bat from a round piece of maple called a billet. It's sanded smooth, given an inventory tag and sent to the next building.

There, the bats hang in long lines on a conveyor that moves them through a staining machine and then an infrared dryer. Then the bats go to another station where an engraving machine can etch several bats at a time.

"The finishing is one of the big hang-ups of the operation," Johnson said. "We decided, hey, we're going to streamline it and cut down on the labor a little bit and get a little more uniform product."

He wouldn't discuss numbers, but said the company was profitable.

The maple is the same grade used by major leaguers, separating the bats from ash and lower-grade maple youth bats sold in sporting goods stores by industry leaders Hillerich & Bradsby Co. -- maker of Louisville Slugger -- and Rawlings Sporting Goods Co.

So far, wood bat training has worked for 13-year-old Toby Hanson of Delano, one of Meyer's teammates on the Minnesota Blizzard, an elite club team with players from all over the state.

"My dad told me to start using a wood bat, because it makes you stronger," he said. "Then I got into a game with an aluminum bat and I crushed the ball."