Marucci bats got from tool shed to clubhouse one convert at a time
Jack Marucci made his first bat in his Louisiana toolshed just nine years ago
Ryan Howard and Albert Pujols are among 300 MLB players using the bats
Marucci built its reputation by word-of-mouth and attention to detail
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.
Boomer: Which NHL teams improved at the trade deadline?
Boomer: Could Phil Jackson really fix the Knicks?