As legend has it, King Arthur obtained the magic sword he used to smite his enemies from Nimu�, 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 Scotts-dale, 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 Bays water 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."