The Barnstable Bat Company hits a homerun with their custom baseball bats
Baseball, the tribulations of the Red Sox aside, is a very “user friendly” sport, welcoming every level and stripe of fan. The season begins before the crocuses with the ritual of spring training, and ends in the crisp October air. The 162 games schedule will accommodate a passiveness of attention unthinkable to the NFL campaign. It simplicity allows for near-universal participation at the amateur level; only a mop handle and an old tennis ball are required. True, basketball calls for nothing more than a ball and one rusted, netless rim in the schoolyard, but there is an element of height in basketball which does not exist on the sandlot. It is, in fact, about the time that we’ve grown as tall as we’re ever going to get that our active participation in amateur baseball ends and we are graduated to fan status. This rank affords many options for staying as close to the game as you desire. You can follow the box score, volunteer to coach the 6 year olds, adopt Boomer Scott and his Mad Dogs (late of the Northeast League), even aspire to seats in section 30 at Fenway. Or, you could supply the bats.
Centerville’s Tom and Christine Bednark chose the last to celebrate the national pastime by founding the Barnstable Bat Company, making custom and personalized baseball bats for souvenirs and game play. It is easy to imagine that such an undertaking would be akin to tilting at windmills. Hillerich & Brads by’s Louisville Slugger dominates the professional market. For durability, aluminum is the choice of the NCAA; although the recent publicity surrounding the danger to pitchers and undue advantage to hitters inherent in aluminum bats has prompted not a shift to mother ash, but a negotiated redesign of aluminum models, to better mimic the characteristics of wood. Manufacturers HB and Easton Sports own this market as well. These were hardly considerations for the Bednarks, who recognized an opportunity uniquely reserved to their situation.
Tom Bednark was a general contractor, talented woodworker, and avid follower of the Cape Cod Baseball League in 1992 when the revelation came as he sat with Christine watching a Cotuit Kettleers game. “I can make the bats,” Tom thought. His requirements for a product, he recalls, were ease in storage and shipping. A baseball bat is a simple enough thing. It could be sent anywhere in the world. It could be made at home (there is a workshop behind the house), and Tom is craftsman enough, as the many guitars in his office attest. Most important, perhaps, he and Christine love the game. So, a product is chosen.
Now, how does one tap the market?
The answer is poetically simple. The Cape League attracts tourists from around the country each summer, fans who would be delighted with a souvenir. It also attracts some of the NCAA’s most talented players, players who are serious about advancing in their careers, as well as MLB scouts—and Cape League ball is played with wooden bats. A sampling of their alumni list now reads like an All Star lineup—Craig Biggio, Frank Thomas, Jeff Bagwell, John Valentin, Mo Vaughn, Nomar Garciaparra. Sell a bat or give a bat to a promising hitter, and that bat goes back to the college program; a little success at the plate, and you have a customer, one who just may do a lot of the marketing for you with his performance in “the bigs.” And that is pretty much how it has gone. They started focusing on the collectibles market, and then introduced their game bats around the Cape. Then USC Berkeley’s Jon Petke won the 1994 Cape League batting title with a Barnstable Bat, hitting .379, and went on to the Cleveland organization. The Bednarks had arrived.
The Bednarks’ love of the game is reflected in Barnstable Bat’s office, tucked in the basement of their home. Not a fanatic’s den, crammed with shoeboxes of old trading cards and promotional photos with fading autographs, but a living shrine to the game today. Bat racks line the wall, displaying the products in its many forms.
One rack contains bats signed by Cape Leaguers; each season, Tom has his young clients autograph a bat. He presented the 1998 version for inspection. There is hardly room left for a comma. “You can tell the guys who are really focused [by their signatures],” Tom says. “They practice their autographs.” The bats contain the hieroglyphics of that season, among them, perhaps, logos of the future game.
This kind of personal attention typifies the Bednarks’ approach. Barnstable Bat is a serious business venture, but this is baseball, so vendor and customer are drawn together by a common love. Every morning in season, two or three players, sometime more, will come through the door looking for bats, as many as 15 in an hour. Some have adopted the Bednarks’ home as their own hangout, filling the time between morning workouts and that night’s first pitch talking shop. It is not unusual, on such days, for Tom to find himself pitching batting practice to the future of Major League Baseball. The Dominican and Pacific Rim notwithstanding, five of the top 10 1998 draft picks are Cape Leaguers, and Barnstable Bat customers. “You hope they remember you when they get rolling.”
“It just kind of grows,” Tom says. “They come in and start ordering custom bats, tweaking them here and there. The key to a bat for a high caliber player is comfort: How does it feel in his hands? Does it feel balanced when he holds it up? Is it long enough? is it short enough, or something about the knob design he thinks is more comforting to him—a million little things. You just change things here and there and they say, ‘Ah, that’s what I really want.'”
Hitting a pitched ball is often cited as the single most difficult act in sports, professional hitters striving year after year to achieve, in effect, the 60 percent failure rate of Ted Williams’ 1941 season (only a Sox fan could couch the record in these terms). Does all this refinement, one lifetime .140 hitter has to ask, really make a difference? “Mentally. Mentally it does, absolutely.”
There must be something to this. In 1996, Barnstable Bats became approved for Major League play, and none too soon for Geronimo Berroa, then with the Oakland Athletics. Berroa was slumping coming into August, and the A’s equipment manager placed an order for a dozen bats. Berroa would hit 31 of his 37 homers that season with a Barnstable Bat, eight in 24 at bats in the first week of August, Tom recalls. There must be something to this. Ballplayers can be a quirky lot, the idiosyncrasies of Nomar Garciaparra at the plate being one prominent example. “Like John Valentin of the Red Sox wants the handle so thin it’s scary. But that’s what he uses. We’ve made him bats, and that’s what he wants.”
Tom not only customizes his bats for the Major League’s clients but for everyone. “If a kid wants something special, and he’s not a professional player, I’ll make it for him,” says Tom. “I do a lot of custom bats. People from Florida, California, Texas all up and say, my kid’s 10 years old and plays Little League and wants a bat with theses sort of characteristics, we make it.” While the professional trade is a lot of fun (Yankees’ second baseman Chuck Knoblauch calls in from time to time), this enterprise is no full-scale assault on the majors. “I’d rather sell bats to college teams and Cape League teams, and to the parents of Little League players.”
Among the parents shopping at Barnstable Bat? Tom searches the rack, pulling out a bat autographed by Mike Barnacle, Joe Morgan and Tim Russert. What brought them? “Russert and Barnacle’s kids’ birthdays are a day apart,” Christine says. “They were like kids in a candy store.” Elders and youngsters alike, to be sure.
Tom has made a number of bats for Mo Vaughn, both for charity auctions and game play. Now with the Angels, will the Hit Dog be back? “I don’t know, I’m going to pump him up,” Tom says. “I know what he uses, and he smacks the ball around with them.” If not, there’s always a kid named Bobby Kielty, Bourne Braves’ outfielder, who batted .348 and came within a homer of capturing the league’s triple crown in 1998. He’s spent a lot of time swinging Tom’s bats, and just signed a half million dollar contract with the Twins.
For more information, contact the Barnstable Bat Company in Centerville at 508-362-8046.
John Downey is a freelance writer and an avid baseball fan living in Dedham, Massachusetts.
You might also like:
19 local nonprofits work to make a difference in the community.Read More
Dream-maker Tim O’Connell expands the horizon of hope with a second location for Tommy’s Place.Read More