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Marucci bats got from tool shed to clubhouse one convert at a time

From its humble debut on Little League fields in Baton Rouge nine years ago to its use today by some 300 major leaguers, the increasing popularity of Marucci wood bats is an American small-business success story whose growth within the game been an underground social explosion, far from the eyes of all but the most scrutinizing fan.

It begins in a 6'-by-9' tool shed, adjacent to a backyard wiffle ball stadium, where a man started carving bats for his little boy, never imagining that his lumber would one day be swung by the men of the major leagues.

Indeed, more than a third of the league's players now use Maruccis. Several elite players are among those who are particularly fond of the bat -- by the company's reckoning, 13 of last year's All-Stars were exclusive Marucci swingers and another 17 either used it in a game or placed an order for use in batting practice. That list includes sluggers such as Albert Pujols, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley. A growing number of future stars are also adoptees: 21-year-old Atlanta Braves Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman, for instance, recently appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated while brandishing Marucci bats.

Thanks to its founder's attention to detail, personal touch and fortuitous connections, Marucci is now the fastest-growing bat company in baseball, and its rapid rise has proven anew that some significant changes can still take place beyond the watchful gaze of fans, media and even most of the players themselves. It also offers a glimpse of how fads start and spread in baseball. The use of Marucci bats has spread thanks mostly to word-of-mouth recommendations from one player to the next, discussing the tools of the trade like businessmen in any other profession.

"Each player," says Jack Marucci, "has a story."

*****

In 2002, eight-year-old Gino Marucci was a baseball-loving Little Leaguer from Louisiana who was particularly enamored with the wooden bats major leaguers swung in the games he saw on television. His father, the head athletic trainer at LSU, called several bat companies to find one for his son. None made any small enough, so Jack Marucci bought a secondhand lathe, retreated to his tool shed and drew upon what he learned in ninth-grade woodshop a few decades prior.

After "three or four tries," Marucci estimates, he got the bat right. He carved his son's name into the barrel and etched his initials into the knob. Soon Gino's youth baseball teammates and opponents all wanted their own personalized wooden bats, and demand grew for Marucci, who was quickly becoming more than just a hobbyist batmaker.

Marucci, of course, had certain inherent advantages. For wood, Marucci called a contact back home in his native Pennsylvania and ordered high-quality billets to use for carving his product.

For guidance on how a wooden bat should look and feel, Marucci didn't need to look any farther than the starting quarterback of LSU's 2003 BCS championship team. Matt Mauck, who had played three years of minor-league baseball in the Cubs' farm system before going to college, generously offered Marucci his expertise.

For acceptance, Marucci benefited from the reality that his boutique bat company was entering an early 21st century commercial climate in which small companies with better craftsmanship were reasserting themselves in the marketplace, like microbrews eating into the sales of the beer conglomerates. In 2001, Barry Bonds had introduced the world to SamBats, which he used while setting a new single-season home run record.

For expansion of his new product, Marucci had a ready-made distribution network in the professional baseball-playing alumni of LSU -- including founding business partners Kurt Ainsworth and Joe Lawrence, a pair of ex-major leaguers -- and Florida State, his previous employer. One player he was especially close to was Eduardo Perez, the son of Hall of Famer Tony Perez, who played at Florida State in the early 1990s when Marucci was a trainer there before moving to LSU.

"That's where we became friends," Perez says of Florida State, "and the connection we had was actually gas permeable contact lenses. I always struggled with my gas permeable contacts, and he suggested putting them in warm water and then putting them back in."

Their friendship grew during their time together in Tallahassee, and they reconnected in 2003 when Perez was with the Cardinals. Marucci made plans to attend an athletic training convention in St. Louis and called ahead, mentioning his new hobby and asking Perez what size bat he swung. Marucci then carved two prototypes to bring on his trip.

"I thought, 'Geez, you've got to be kidding me,'" says Perez, who served as an analyst for ESPN's Baseball Tonight before joining the Indians as a special assistant this offseason. "So I humored him with it, and he made me a couple bats. I tried them out at batting practice and thought, Wow, these things are really good."

That night, on June 25, 2003, when the Cardinals hosted the Reds, Perez used one in a game and lined out to shortstop. He says he gave the other to Albert Pujols, who began using it everyday in batting practice. While the Reds were in town, Perez suggested the bats to Barry Larkin, his former teammate. Larkin became the first major leaguer to get a hit with a Marucci bat.

Soon Perez became Marucci's "Patient Zero" in introducing the bats to big-league players. Perez had a large network of teammates and former teammates, as he had played for six teams over 13 seasons at that juncture of his career. He gave his endorsement of Marucci in conversations with teammates in the clubhouse or opponents around the batting cage.

"Word-of-mouth in baseball -- and obviously in marketing anywhere -- is huge," Perez says. "When you have legit people using the bats, they'll spread."

Maruccis still had to pass ballplayers' unique litmus tests, though. Tapping a bat and checking the sound of the vibration -- a high pitch means high-quality -- is one way to test the wood. When Perez and Raul Ibañez were Mariners teammates in 2006, Perez covered his teammate's eyes with a sanitary sock and asked him to tap several bats.

"He picked out all the Maruccis blindfolded," Perez says. "That's when he said, 'Oh my God, that's it. I'm convinced.'"

"Jack is a craftsman," says Ibañez, who has swung Maruccis ever since. "Those guys really care about quality. They're the best I've ever used."

Perez later introduced Maruccis to Jose Cruz Jr., another widely traveled player who suited up for nine teams. Cruz swung them while playing for Puerto Rico in the 2006 World Baseball Classic, where he says he showed the bats to many of his teammates, including centerfielder Carlos Beltran.

By the time Beltran returned to the Mets that spring, he met Jack Marucci and became hooked on the bats. Beltran later suggested that teammates Jose Reyes and David Wright swing them. In a batting-cage conversation in 2007, Wright helped convince Pujols to swing Marucci bats not just in BP but in games, too.

Thus, like a childhood game of telephone, the message of Marucci had gone full circle, from Perez, who gave Pujols one of the original Marucci prototypes, to Cruz to Beltran to Wright and back to Pujols.

*****

A player's bat is his sole instrument with which he can levy damage on a pitch. He uses it daily, some 30 public batting practice cuts on the field and untold more in the stadium's batting cages, all to make the most of what's rarely more than a dozen in-game swings. Thus even seemingly subtle inconsistencies -- a half-ounce off the listed weight, a quarter-inch thinner barrel, a few degrees of unevenness on the sloped handle -- are notable.

"The bat doesn't make the player," Perez says, "but at the same time, when you're holding onto a bat, that's an extension of you."

That's why players have gone to legendary extremes in the care and maintenance of their bats. Ted Williams personally scoured the Louisville Slugger timber yard to pick his own narrow-grained wood. Richie Ashburn was so protective of his wood that on road trips he often slept with his bats in his hotel room. Orlando Cepeda believed only one hit resided in the soul of each bat, so after each base knock he'd discard it and start anew.

For hitters, changing bats midway through their careers is significant, especially when that hitter is as accomplished as Pujols. By 2007 he had already smashed 250 home runs, won an MVP trophy and established himself as the game's most feared offensive force. The convincing of Pujols took a few years, in no small part because when he first swung a Marucci in batting practice, it wasn't legal for use in games. At the time Marucci was not a properly licensed batmaker, so its first hit and first home run were done with what was technically contraband. Marucci was especially worried when Perez first used the bat in a game, fearing it would shatter against major-league pitching.

"Jack was nervous," Perez recalled. "He had no insurance. He was just a guy making bats in his shed."

The license from MLB came in 2005, and Marucci counts 100 players who used its bats in 2008, the same year it purchased a wood farm in Pennsylvania for its lumber, employing Amish woodcutters to ready the billets for shipment to its Louisiana headquarters. With better capacity for production and an ever-growing network of referrals, the roster of players swinging Maruccis at least part-time tripled to 300 by 2009.

It's hard to get an exact accounting of users, because not all players are bat monogamists. Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira, who was introduced to Maruccis by catcher Jorge Posada shortly after joining New York in 2009, says he keeps three or four models from different companies in a regular rotation.

"It's all feel," Teixeira says. "As players, we feel different each day, so we swing whatever feels good. Some days I'll want a bat that's heavier or lighter, longer or shorter."

Not every player who tried Marucci become an immediate convert. Braves catcher Brian McCann, for instance, says he's tried Marucci, Rawlings and SamBats but for now has settled on Louisville Slugger's maple. Wright, despite his role in convincing Pujols to swing a Marucci, has switched and says he now exclusively swings Louisville Sluggers.

But several other players did become Marucci users, often aided by the tentacles of LSU. Ryan Howard's older brother, Chris, used to work as LSU's compliance director. On a visit to Baton Rouge Chris introduced his then-Triple A playing brother to Jack Marucci, who made a bat for him. Howard became a devotee and still uses a model very similar to that original prototype.

"They worked," Ryan Howard says. "The quality, the turnaround and just how they felt."

Howard introduced the bat to the Phillies' clubhouse, where many of the regulars -- Howard, Utley, Ibañez, Placido Polanco, Carlos Ruiz and Shane Victorino -- swing them regularly.

Meanwhile Hill, the Blue Jays second baseman who played at LSU, already knew Ainsworth and Lawrence. They introduced him to Marucci bats, and Hill began swinging them before the 2009 season because of the high-quality wood even though he has an endorsement deal with Louisville Slugger.

"I'm not a fan of change, and I had been using Louisville my whole life," Hill said before the 2010 season. "[But] last year I started using Marucci in spring and decided I was going to keep swinging these."

(Endorsement contracts cannot mandate exclusive use of a company's bat, as it is considered a trade tool. A Louisville Slugger spokesman acknowledged that in some instances one of its contracted players will swing another bat for any of a few reasons, most commonly a slump in which the hitter is desperate to try something new.)

Before Opening Day 2010, Hill shared one of his bats with centerfielder Vernon Wells, who found that he could mis-hit balls and still have them travel pretty far.

"I've been using them ever since," Wells says. "They're hard as a rock."

Then-Jays catcher John Buck first tried one in a mid-June game in San Diego's cavernous Petco Park. He hit two home runs that night. Two nights later Buck homered again -- with a broken bat.

"Since then I've been using Marucci," Buck says with a laugh.

In the offseason the Blue Jays traded Wells to the Angels, and Buck signed a free-agent contract with the Marlins, opening the possibility of the bats' future expansion.

Utley was similarly touched by the persuasion of power. On April 23, 2007 at Citizens Bank Park, Utley launched a pitch from the Astros' Dave Borkowski over the ivy-covered brick wall that is set a few paces back from the dead center field fence marked "401," a blast that measured 460 feet.

"I hit it over the batter's eye, which for me is really far," Utley says. "I remember thinking I hit it well, but I didn't think I hit it that well."

The difference, he concluded, in hitting his only homer over the Citizens Bank Park batter's eye, was the maple bat he held in his hands, the hardest wood he had ever swung.

*****

The referrals went a long way toward introducing the bats to players, but the players wouldn't have kept swinging them because of recommendations alone. Jack Marucci's attention to detail certainly helped, as he regularly fields calls from players with suggestions on how to improve or personalize the product -- sloping the handle a little differently, increasing the size of the knob, etc.

"It was more about the quality of the woods and the relationship you create [with the company], which was almost more important than anything else," Pujols says.

In a standard order a major league player receives 12 new bats. According to many of the more than 20 players interviewed for this story, it is common for not all of the dozen bats in each shipment to be of a sufficient quality for game use.

Utley had been a bat nomad early in his career, never loyal to any one brand, swinging everything and settling on nothing. On Howard's recommendation he placed an order with Marucci in 2006. The first batch Utley received made him a quick convert.

"These were all very precise," Utley says. "Ten or 11 were very hard but there were two in particular like I've never seen before. I remember one bat I used for a while. I'd pick my times when I'd use it because I didn't want to break it."

"If he only had good wood for five bats, he only sent you five," Beltran says. "He didn't send you 12 just to send you 12. He wanted to send you quality wood. We, as players, like that."

Just as Marucci wouldn't send lesser-quality bats just to fill out an order, he was also responsive to players' immediate needs. Before the 2009 World Series, Utley called him to order a special bat in anticipation of facing Yankees closer Mariano Rivera. Knowing how sharply Rivera's cutter breaks in on a lefty and how challenging it is for hitters to square up his pitches, Utley asked for a bat that was one inch shorter and had a slightly larger barrel. The company complied and rushed one to him.

Utley debuted the bat against Rivera in the eighth inning of Game 2 in New York, with two on, one out and the Phillies trailing 3-1. Utley grounded into a double play, though that likely had less to do with the bat in his hands than it did the man on the mound.

*****

Red Sox centerfielder Mike Cameron is listed in the company timeline for hitting the first home run with a Marucci bat, but his face lit up with a smile for a different reason when asked about the dinger.

"I was in a movie with it," he says.

In 2004 Cameron was with the Mets, and a friend of the team's trainer introduced Cameron to Marucci bats. After swinging them a few days in batting practice, he tried one in a game. On June 18 against the Tigers at Shea Stadium, Cameron batted in the bottom of the ninth with the scored tied, two outs and no one on and crushed a pitch from Detroit's Danny Patterson for a walkoff home run.

In the 2005 remake of The Honeymooners, Cedric the Entertainer's character is a Queens bus driver, who in one early scene is sitting on his couch and cheering on the Mets. On the television screen is what is purported to be the bottom of the ninth of World Series Game 7 -- thanks to some superimposed graphics -- but in reality was, if not for Cameron's heroics, an otherwise innocuous interleague game.

Cedric the Entertainer yells, "Cameron can't strike out this time, man. What is he doing?" The movie camera then zooms in on the television, where Cameron is wagging a brown bat with the Marucci logo, a script M, plain as day.

While the movie flopped and had no sequel, Cameron reprised his own dramatic role the very next night, delivering another walkoff hit with an RBI single in the 10th inning against the same team, the same pitcher and, he notes with a smile, "Same bat."

*****

Marucci is no longer the CEO, having moved into a more hands-off role in recent years. His company that began in part because his son could only use aluminum bats is now targeting that marketplace by trying to leverage its currency among the sports' most accomplished players into sales of a new line of metal bats.

The company -- now run by CEO Reed Dickens -- deliberately chooses to skimp on its advertising budget, preferring grassroots advertising efforts centered on a flashy, video-laden website and sponsorship of tournaments for elite youth players.

It is banking on superstar salesmen like Pujols and Utley. Both started volunteering to help promote the company and later decided to invest in it. While other companies pay players to endorse their products, those two among 10 current or recent major-leaguers to do the opposite: spend their money and become minority owners. The others are Cruz, Wells, David Ortiz, Chad Durbin, Ryan Vogelsong, Sean Casey, Geoff Jenkins and Ben Sheets. (Notably, Ortiz invests in the company but usually swings a Nokona bat.)

After all, those are the men who know better than any other the value of their weapon. The bat may be the forgotten component of the daily home run highlights, discarded to the ground as fans adjust their gaze to follow the ball's trajectory, but the players are taking notes. And to them those bats are anything but ignored.

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