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Steelman16 10-22-2009 02:07 PM

Great article about a batmaker!
 
A son's wish turned bayou bat maker into big hit with major league sluggers

Brett Martel, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS Oct 21, 4:53 pm EDT

BATON ROUGE, La. - Mark Teixeira(notes) took a healthy swing and crack!

A screaming line drive that cleared the left-field fence at Yankee Stadium for a game-winning home run in the playoffs against Minnesota.

Somewhere down in the bayou, Jack Marucci smiled.

Of course, when all this started, Marucci wasn't looking to become bat maker to the stars. He simply wanted to carve a comfortable piece of lumber that his boy could use in T-ball.

But it didn't take long for Marucci, the head trainer at LSU, to go from middle-aged dad to major league merchant. Now, he makes hand-crafted bats for about 60 players, including some of baseball's biggest sluggers: Teixeira, Albert Pujols(notes), Ryan Howard(notes) and Chase Utley(notes), just to name a few.
In this photo made March 16, 2006, bat maker Jack Marucci shows bats, one for his son, Gino, the other for Manny Ramirez(notes), at his shop in Baton Rouge, La.

"It's the hardest bat in the business," said Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Raul Ibanez(notes), who hit 34 home runs this season. "A lot of guys use them. They've gone from not being a name bat to being the name. Jack does a great job."

Marucci bats, recognizable by the right-leaning cursive 'M' on the barrel, still aren't very well known by the public because the man who founded the company doesn't even consider bat making his real job. He said he hasn't spent a dollar on marketing since former Cincinnati Reds shortstop Barry Larkin got the first major league hit with one of his bats in 2003.

"Our marketing has been players," Marucci said. "My salesmen are Albert Pujols, Chase Utley - that's who sells the bats for us. We don't go and solicit."

The Phillies are serving as good advertisers during these playoffs - more than half of their starting lineup uses his bats. Robinson Cano(notes), Melky Cabrera(notes) and Jerry Hairston Jr.(notes) of the Yankees and Casey Blake(notes) of the Dodgers are regular customers, too.

Bats cost about $75 to $100 each - with the team picking up the tab - and the price is the same whether it's for a star or scrub.

Marucci recalled being good at using a lathe to make lamps in a ninth-grade wood shop class, but he never set out to become a bat maker.

The Pittsburgh-area native has made his living in sports medicine, working with major college programs such as Florida State and now LSU.

His office is in LSU's football operations building, though it's starting to look a little like a baseball equipment manager's workspace. Wooden bats, many used by major leaguers and eventually sent back to Marucci as souvenirs, lean barrel head-down against the wall.

One of them was used by shortstop Orlando Cabrera(notes) during the Boston Red Sox 2004 World Series run. The letters "CB" are inscribed on it, which Marucci said stands for "Curse Buster," a reference to the since-broken "Curse of the Bambino."

Marucci's experiment with bat making began early this decade, when he would spend summer evenings watching baseball with his son, Gino, then about seven years old. When Gino began playing T-ball, he wanted a wooden bat like the pros use rather than the metal ones wielded by other kids.

Marucci quickly learned that finding a wooden bat appropriate for a Little Leaguer - one about 27 inches long - was virtually impossible. The bat companies he called said such a bat would have to be specially made.

At that point, Marucci figured he might be able to do it himself. He consulted then-LSU quarterback Matt Mauck, who played a few years of pro baseball before enrolling in school. Mauck had toured bat plants and vaguely remembered how they were made. Marucci said he found someone in Pennsylvania to supply cuts of ash and he hung an adult-size wooden bat in his shed to use as a model.

"I finally got the geometry down," Marucci said. "That was the hardest thing when you're cutting bats by hand."

Marucci found the work therapeutic, a "nice outlet" from the stress of answering to big-time college football coaches who want to know when their hobbled stars will be ready to return to the gridiron.

Bat making remained merely a hobby until Marucci scheduled a trip to St. Louis for a trainers' conference in 2003. Eduardo Perez(notes), who played at Florida State when Marucci was there, was with the Cardinals then. Marucci called him seeking tickets and mentioned the bats he'd started making for his son.

Intrigued, Perez asked for one. So Marucci asked what model Perez used, then made a few to those specifications, brought them on the trip and met him outside the lobby of a St. Louis hotel.

Perez gripped one, saying, "You know what? This thing feels so good. I'm going to use it," Marucci recalled.

"And I said, 'Now, I've seen seven-and eight-year-olds use it. This thing's going to blow up,"' Marucci said. "I don't know how this thing's going to hold up for a major league baseball player."

The Reds were in town to play the Cardinals. Perez used it in batting practice, then let Larkin try it. Perez was first to use it in a game and grounded out, but Larkin tried it in another game and singled.

Before long, Pujols was using one, and word got around big league clubhouses quickly enough that when LSU's 2004 football season rolled around, Marucci was in his shed after hours - all night sometimes - making bats for Manny Ramirez(notes), Cabrera and other major leaguers who wanted them for the playoffs.

Marucci hadn't even been licensed by Major League Baseball yet. That happened in 2005, and Marucci smirks while recalling the day an MLB representative informed him by phone that he'd been approved, and the confusion that followed when Marucci gave the same address for his home and his bat plant.

"I told him, 'It's a six-by-nine shed where I make these bats,' and you could hear a silence over the phone," Marucci said.

Soon after, the operation expanded into a larger shed in the backyard of a new business partner, former LSU player and major leaguer Kurt Ainsworth. They then leased part of a shutter factory, then moved to an industrial site shared by a railroad tanker car shop, then eventually took over that entire space in 2007. Another former LSU player, Brett Laxton, makes bats for him full time.

Though the workspace is bigger, Marucci says the bats are still made in an "old-school" way. The maple and ash are supplied by Amish wood cutters in Pennsylvania who, according to Marucci, know nothing about baseball.

"They know how to cut wood," Marucci said. "All (the supplier) cares about is keeping the grain straight."

The bats are not dipped, but stained by hand as well.

Marucci has enough of a customer base now that he could focus on making bats full time and leave LSU, but he didn't get into the bat business to make a living.

"I always believed, if somebody has a job, they should always have another interest because it keeps you more creative in your job, it keeps you healthier in your job, so you're not just focused on one thing," Marucci said. "I tell football coaches this all the time. So this isn't a secret. I think it just makes you better in what you do."

Marucci said the single-minded process of sculpting lumber, sanding it to perfection and handing it off to the best hitters in the world is where the real reward of bat making comes for him.

"The best feeling is after you make it, you take it to a player and watch batting practice," Marucci said. "You hear that sound coming off a loud, sharp, explosive noise."

It's the sound of a lined shot just inside the left-field foul pole, the sound that stirs a Yankee Stadium crowd into a frenzy on an October evening.


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