Marucci bats gain converts one MLB player at a time (cont.)
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.