Against The Grain Carving a new niche in maple, a Canadian woodworker gave hitters an alternative to ash and unleashed the boutique bat business

March 25, 2002

As legend has it, King Arthur obtained the magic sword he used
to smite his enemies from Nimue, a beautiful woman who stood
sentry at a lake in which the weapon was submerged. Barry
Bonds's meeting with his Lady of the Lake was less mythic but no
less momentous. It was spring training 1999, and, instead of a
knockout in gleaming locks and flowing robes, Bonds was
introduced to a gray-haired, 53-year-old Canadian carpenter in
denim overalls. Sam Holman, founder of Ottawa's Original Maple
Bat Company, ambled up to Bonds at the San Francisco Giants'
complex in Scottsdale, Ariz., and presented him with his
creation: the Rideau Crusher, named after the canal that winds
through the Canadian capital. The Crusher was carved from sugar
maple rather than the white ash that Bonds and the majority of
his major league colleagues had used throughout their careers.
"His first reaction was," says Holman, "'Oh, no, not another bat
salesman.'"

Bonds changed his tune after a session in the cage. He reported
to Holman that the bat felt harder than his ash models. True,
the maple was heavier, but Bonds also thought the ball jumped
off it with more zip. After Bonds gave him a few design
suggestions, Holman scurried back to the lathe in the shed
behind his home on Bayswater Avenue in Ottawa to tinker.

That sample bat was the prototype of a 21st-century Excalibur.
By the end of last season more than 200 major leaguers had armed
themselves with what are known as Sam Bats. Bonds began swinging
Holman's maple full time midway through the '99 season, and last
year he used a 34-inch, 32-ounce model 2K1 Rideau Crusher with a
half-cupped barrel to bash his way to 73 home runs and an .863
slugging percentage, both single-season records.

When it comes to choosing bats, many hitters insist, in the
words of Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Brian Jordan, "It's not
the arrow, it's the Indian." That may have been true 10 or even
five years ago, but not anymore. Reason No. 1: Thanks to a slew
of innovative bat makers like Holman, the Indians--and the
Giants, and everyone else in baseball--suddenly have many more
arrows to choose from. "People talk about the ball being
juiced," says Tampa Bay Devil Rays catcher John Flaherty. "I've
been saying for a while now that the wood is so much better than
it was when I came up."

Holman's introduction of maple five years ago was the first
major innovation in wooden bat technology in almost a century,
and the heavier wood has caught on. St. Louis Cardinals slugger
Albert Pujols hit 37 home runs and set a National League rookie
record for RBIs (130) in 2001 using a Sam Bat. Dodgers catcher
Paul Lo Duca switched to maple last year, using bats made by
Louisville Slugger and by the Tennessee-based Old Hickory Bat
Company during his breakthrough season. "It took me a while to
try it, but now I'm a maple believer," says Lo Duca, "a
full-time maple guy."

Cliff Floyd of the Florida Marlins also switched to maple--a
model made by Old Hickory--last June. "I used the bat for the
first time last year, and I hit 31 bombs," says Floyd, who never
before had hit more than 22. He believes the new wood gives him
extra pop even when he doesn't hit the ball cleanly. "I'd get
jammed and instead of the bat breaking, the ball would bloop
into the outfield for a base hit," he says. "That's a huge
advantage of maple--strength."

Another advantage is its durability. Ash bats, especially the
thick-barreled, thin-handled models most modern hitters prefer,
rarely last more than a couple of games. Yet stories of
seemingly unbreakable maple bats circulate like Arthurian
legends. Flaherty, who still swings an ash Louisville Slugger
C271 in games because he likes the feel, used the same Sam Bat
every day for batting practice last year. Phillies catcher Mike
Lieberthal, who uses maple Louisville Sluggers and Tuff Bats,
the latter made by a small firm in California, used the same
maple stick every day this off-season while hitting in his
backyard cage. "Ash bats would splinter after two or three BPs,"
he says. "Now I'm a maple guy till the day I die. I've heard
you'd better order your maple now because they're going to run
out."

That seems unlikely given the glut of bat makers now catering to
major leaguers. Five years ago the bats of 11 manufacturers were
approved for game use by the commissioner's office. This season
that number has swelled to 48. Biggies like Hillerich & Bradsby,
Rawlings, Mizuno and Easton are still the most common names in
big league bat racks, but in recent years bat companies have
sprung up like microbreweries, sporting clever names and
promising personalized service and handmade quality. There are
bats from seemingly every state (Carolina Clubs, Jersey Sticks
and Texas Timber) and two countries (Mash Bats and Tom Cat Bats
are also based in Canada). There's Chesapeake Thunder and
Thunder Lumber, Hoosier and Zinger and Reaper. Need a bat
fashioned by Amish artisans? There are two choices, the Dutch
Craftsman Bat Company and Akadema, which promises quality bats
built "in the Pennsylvania Dutch tradition" and without the aid
of electricity.

Whether they choose maple or ash, all hitters--not just the
superstars--can now have their needs met by one of the
bat-company reps who swarm through spring camps. While once
those reps sought to match the average major leaguer to the bat,
offering him his choice of any existing model in the company's
lineup, the approach among the small companies is to match a bat
to a player. Most companies can get hitters an order of
custom-made bats within two weeks.

The days of a young player signing a 20-year contract with
Louisville Slugger to get his name on a bat are long gone.
Plenty of rank-and-file hitters still get their signature
models, but the deals they sign are for a season or two at a
time. Indeed, most hitters' lockers are stocked with bats from
three or four companies, and a manufacturer will use its
customized service as an incentive to get a player to use its
bats. The model Bonds will use this year, for example, is the
result of three years of tinkering (shifting barrel weight,
fattening the knob, etc.) by him and Holman. Says Dodgers
outfielder Shawn Green (Rawlings ash in games, maple for BP),
"There's more competition, so it's easier to get good service."

More companies also means more gimmicks. Major league rules
state only that "the bat shall be a smooth, round stick not more
than 2 3/4 inches in diameter at the thickest part and not more
than 42 inches in length." There is no maximum weight. The
commissioner's office limits the color that bats can come in
(natural, brown, black and a two-tone stain are the only
acceptable hues), but says nothing about how many coats of
finish they can carry. Some hitters believe lacquer gives a bat
more durability and, perhaps, extra juice. But even
manufacturers concede that the extra dipping may provide only a
psychological edge at best. Says Chuck Schupp, Louisville
Slugger's director of pro baseball sales, "Lacquer doesn't
matter. If you want to drive the ball, use a heavier piece of
lumber."

That's where Holman made his breakthrough. He was relaxing at
Ottawa's Mayflower Pub, his usual haunt, one night during the
spring of 1996 when his friend Bill MacKenzie, then a scout for
the Colorado Rockies, bemoaned the fragility of the wooden bat.
MacKenzie turned to Holman, who had worked for 23 years as a
carpenter and theater-set builder at Ottawa's National Arts
Center, and said, "You know wood. Can you make a stronger bat?"

Holman started by slogging through 225 U.S. bat-making patents;
by the time he was done, he knew he wasn't going to make a better
ash bat. He knew that maple, with a density (or specific gravity)
of between 0.63 and 0.67, is only slightly heavier than ash
(density of about 0.60), yet is much stronger and more durable.

Holman carved his first bat out of a maple newel post from the
stairway in his house. In April 1997 he descended on the Toronto
Blue Jays and persuaded Joe Carter, Carlos Delgado and Ed Sprague
to try maple in batting practice. Carter fell in love; he sneaked
a Sam into a game that season and homered, and Holman was in
business.

By last season at least seven other companies were producing
maple bats. The biggest hurdle for all of them is maple's wide
variance in density, an obstacle to consistently producing bats
of identical weight and dimensions. (That difficulty accounts for
the high price of maple bats. As a rule, teams pay for all
players' bats, and Sams sell for $65 apiece, nearly twice what
most ash sticks go for.) If a hitter insists on a bat that weighs
32 ounces, for instance, some of his bats may have to be made
with a thinner barrel, maybe 2 1/2 inches in diameter compared
with a standard 2 5/8 inches ash model. If barrel size is more
important, he may find himself swinging bats of slightly
different weights.

Holman insists that thin-barreled bats lead to increased bat
speed, with little or no sacrifice in the size of the bat's
"sweet spot," and that those models will be the wave of the
future. "I can make a bat barrel just over two inches in diameter
that will give you the same weight to the ball as Barry's bat,
which is almost 2 5/8 inches," he says. "I'll guarantee you one
thing: If anyone beats Barry's record of 73, it will be with a
narrow-barreled bat."

In January, Bonds visited Sam Bat headquarters. He tiptoed
through Holman's living room, stepping around hundreds of bats
waiting to be boxed and shipped to every major league camp and
stepped into the second-floor bedroom that doubles as Holman's
"administration room." Bonds also toured the manufacturing plant
Holman opened in a converted tavern in November. Until then
every Sam Bat had been carved and finished in the shed behind
Holman's house. "When we were walking through the living room,
Barry told me he had to stop and take a moment to wrap his mind
around all this," Holman says.

Holman expects to turn out 30,000 bats this year, double his
2001 production. Nearly all will be sold to professionals in the
major and minor leagues and in Mexico and Taiwan. After the tour
Bonds and Holman retired to the Mayflower Pub for a reception
for 150 of the bat maker's closest friends. There the home run
king thanked his Lady of the Lake. "You know, it's my record,"
Bonds told Holman, "but it's still your bat."

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID TURNLEY Pick a stick Since Holman (left) put his first handcrafted model into big leaguers' hands in 1997, dozens of companies have created an arsenal of bats for major leaguers with an array of choices in maple and ash. COLOR PHOTO: STEVEN FREEMAN (BATS) [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: DAVID TURNLEY Pitching hitters Each spring Holman leaves his batty house in Ottawa to sell sticks to big leaguers like the Dodgers' Mark Grudzielanek. COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: BRUCE DALE Testing, testing.... Baum (left, with assistant John Marmett) and his machine found little difference between ash and maple.

"I'll guarantee you one thing," says Holman. "If anyone beats
Bonds's record of 73, it will be with a narrow-barreled bat."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)