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Against the GRAIN
Stephen Cannella
March 25, 2002
Carving a new niche in maple, a Canadian woodworker gave hitters an alternative to ash and unleashed the boutique bat business
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March 25, 2002

Against The Grain

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

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More companies also means more gimmicks. Major league rules state only that "the bat shall be a smooth, round stick not more than 2� 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� inches in diameter compared with a standard 2? 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? 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."

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