Make it to the World Series as a player these days and you're guaranteed a year-end bonus, win or lose, in the neighborhood of a quarter million dollars. You'll also get, shipped up from the Louisville Slugger Bat Factory, a batch of custom-made game-ready baseball bats, with "2009 WORLD SERIES" seared into the barrel right under your name. "Except the relief pitchers," says Dan Cohen, curator of the factory's museum. "They're on their own."
The factory and museum occupy a red brick building on the corner of Eighth and Main in that old Kentucky city, and if you're any kind of baseball fan you'll get the chills just walking into the place. You can see Ty Cobb's rookie bat, nail in the center of the barrel, ball marks everywhere. You can see one of Babe Ruth's 40 ouncers from his 60-home run season, complete with the notches the big guy carved in each time he knocked one out. You can swing a bat that Rod Carew used to hit with, and you can grip the handle of one of David Ortiz's gamers, right where Papi himself put his own loogied-up palms. This joint goes on my short list of favorite museums.
The Angels impertinent seventh-inning rally in Game 5 did more than just extend the ALCS and give the Yankees some additional home-game revenue (sigh, the rich get richer), it also got the major league bat-makers in Louisville working double last Friday. What with the World Series fast approaching and rain potentially extending the ALCS even further, and also the facts that bat making never happens on a Sunday and that the lacquer finish needs two full days to dry, a decision was made at the factory: Go ahead and create World Series bats for all the non-relief pitchers on both the Yankees AND the Angels. The bats of the team that didn't survive the ALCS would be destroyed. Probably.
"That's the idea," Cohen said. "To just get rid of them. Although sometimes things go out the back door and turn up in the real world." That's what happened in the case of the so-called World Series phantom bats made for the Orioles in '73. Despite the fact that the O's lost to the A's in the ALCS, Jim Palmer's 1973 World Series model, for one, is alive and well and living in San Francisco.
Making bats for two teams instead of one isn't much of a hardship for a guy like the factory's Garrik Napier, who during the baseball season typically turns as many as 350 bats a day. More than half of all major leaguers use Louisville Slugger bats and of those, "it's about 60 percent ash and 40 percent maple," says Napier. Players have gotten into maple a lot more in recent years even though it is more brittle (remember the controversy around all those broken maple bats last season?) and more expensive ($83 apiece as compared with $52 for an ash model), in part because that's what Barry Bonds used to hit his home runs. Interesting. Wonder if there's anything else Bonds used that inspired other ballplayers to experiment ...
Talk of Bonds naturally leads to thoughts of Alex Rodriguez, one of Louisville Slugger's very best customers. While major league teams typically pay for their players' bats, A-Rod insists on buying his own, just as Ken Griffey Jr. does and as Tony Gwynn used to. This way he (or his rep) deals directly with the factory and can agitate for the finest wood in every lot. "It's about control," explains Cohen.
On Friday A-Rod's World Series bats were just about done. His batting practice clubs go 34 inches and 34 ounces with a clear, ballplayer's dip (that means the lacquer goes about 2/3 of the way down from the top of the barrel). A-Rod's black game bats are 34 inches, 32 ounces, a C271 with a Hornsby knob -- one of the most popular models in baseball. It's named after its designer, former big leaguer Jose Cardenal,who was 271st player with a surname ending in C to come up with a distinct bat model. There are more than 3,000 models in all. Ryan Howard's bat goes 34 1/2 inches, 33 ounces; it's jet black and knobless.
Pedro Martinez and Cliff Lee like to brandish black bats as well and, as the ALCS sorted itself out, each had a pair of finished Series clubs waiting peacefully to be sent to the Fall Classic. Jorge Posada's bats, meanwhile, were being sanded and Jose Molina's name was being burned, at a heat of 1,400 degrees, into his barrel. An order of just-dipped bats -- 28 inches, 20 ounces -- hung drying for Dante Girardi. Dante is seven years old and his Dad manages the Yanks.
These days, a major league hitter might go through 120 bats a season, which explains why Napier turns those 350 a day. In 1930 the Tigers' Charlie Gehringer got a four-bat shipment from Louisville Slugger that lasted him all season. Back then at the factory, a bay of workers, calipers in hand, turned each bat by hand on a lathe. It might have taken them half an hour or longer to get one just right. Today's machines turn a bat in 47 seconds.
Some big leaguers still have a hankering for the old days. A few years back then-Astro Craig Biggio came onto the factory floor and asked to have a bat hand-turned especially for him. Another time not long ago, the story goes, then-Yankee outfielder Paul O'Neill showed up one day with a hunk of hickory -- the kind of knotty wood that guys like Jimmie Foxx and Hank Greenberg used to swing -- and requested that a bat be made from it right then and there.
Someone in the 2009 World Series will likely hit a home run with a piece of carefully turned, meticulously sanded wood that a year ago was living on the 8,000 acres of woodland that Louisville Slugger owns in Pennsylvania and New York. Babe Ruth held a Louisville Slugger when he called his Game 3 shot in Wrigley Field in 1932. Jackie Robinson had a special bat for the Series in 1955 when next year finally came to Brooklyn. Roberto Clemente got his 36-inch, 37-ounce World Series model in time to hit .414 over seven games for the Pirates in 1971. The players change and the game does too, but one thing remains the same: get to the World Series and the folks at Louisville Slugger will make a bat for you.