Bat maker equips big-leaguers and rec leaguers alike with good wood.
The industrial park headquarters for the Phoenix Bat Co. lacks the hallowed atmosphere of iconic baseball venues such as Chicago's Wrigley Field and Boston's Fenway Park. But what the company does there-make custom-crafted wood baseball bats-is the essence of what General Manager and Co-owner Seth Cramer calls "real baseball" that's in tune with the history of the game.
"Our niche is creating a high quality bat," he says. "That's what we build our business on."
That business has been growing. Phoenix Bats produces about 15,000 bats a year, up from 3,200 when Cramer joined the company in 2007. The employee count has risen from two to nine during that span. They work in an expanded 3,700-square-foot building that includes the bat-making operation, offices and showroom.
Cramer, whose business background includes stints with McGraw-Hill Education, Limited Brands and several startups, says he has spent much of his time boosting Phoenix Bats' marketing and sales efforts, including development of a national network of 40 independent sales representatives. But the company stays true to its roots when it comes to bat-making. That's due to the fact that Phoenix Bats founder Charley Trudeau continues to oversee bat design and be involved in other aspects of the business whose roots go back to 1996.
Back then, Trudeau was restoring houses in central Ohio and owned a small wood shop. He also played for the Ohio Village Muffins, a 19th century baseball team organized by the Ohio Historical Society.
"The Historical Society knew Charley was a really good wood craftsman," Cramer says, "and it's not like you're finding 1860s baseball bats in a catalog. The Historical Society said, 'We need some bats.' Charley said, 'Sure, I'm up for the task.' It just grew from there."
The company continues to make those vintage bats, but its main focus is on bats used by today's professional, amateur and youth players. Cramer says about 20 percent of sales are to professional players, including current major leaguers Adam Eaton of the Chicago White Sox, Angel Pagan of the San Francisco Giants and New York Yankee Didi Gregorius.
"It's an interesting market to say the least," he says. "You sometimes forget that these are guys in their late teens or early 20s, and a lot of them are still lemmings. Even when they get to the big leagues, there is a kind of hierarchy where veterans say (to younger players), 'Hey, what are you swinging?'
"By the same token, some of them are great to work with. We win with those guys because of service. We are going to take care of them, promote them through social media and make sure they have the right bat."
The wood bat business is not for the faint of heart. Phoenix Bats competes with several dozen small companies as well as industry giant Hillerich & Bradsby Co. and its famed Louisville Slugger brand.
"What it truly boils down to for us is wood quality," Cramer says. "A large company like (Hillerich & Bradsby) owns its own forest, which is a plus and minus. Obviously the costs are lower, but the inherent flaw is they only have a few select woods to choose from versus us buying logs from anywhere on the East Coast."
That gives Phoenix Bats its pick of high-quality maple, birch and ash for bats that Cramer says are durable and give players a better feel for hitting than the metal bats typically used by youth leagues, high schools, colleges and adult leagues. Phoenix bats are produced on an Italian-manufactured lathe that cuts and sands the wood. They are then stained, dried and shipped.
Cramer says the bats, which range in price from $57 to $125, appeal to what he calls "weekend warriors" who play in wood bat leagues and remain Phoenix Bats' core customers. They include some of the players in the Columbus Senior Men's Baseball League and Central Ohio Men's Adult Baseball League.
"Some of it is wanting to play real baseball again, plus factoring in safety," says Jim Durham, past president of the Columbus senior league, referring to injury risks posed by the high speed at which balls fly off metal bats. He also says players appreciate that Phoenix Bats supports league activities, including its annual banquet, and asks them to test new designs.
Wood bats made by Phoenix are also being used as a training tool for youth players, including in a wood bat league for kids ages 5 to 8 years old in Dublin.
"I am a firm believer that younger players can learn to be better fundamental hitters by using woods bats," said Randal Rust, founder and coach of the Dublin Bats Baseball Club. "The bats are durable and perform well, but players really need to use their body to drive the baseball with a wood bat."
Rust says the quality of Phoenix bats is excellent, and the company is extremely supportive of his baseball program. He also gets a kick out of what he hears from grandfathers of players in the wood bat league.
"They tell me how much they like the league because it reminds them of how the game was played when they were young," Rust says. "It's about nostalgia for them."
Jeff Bell is a freelance writer.