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.”
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