Tuesday, October 11, 2011
Like a flash of lightning, the blue-green streak of a wooden bat lines a ball into the outfield. The crowd, rising to its collective feet, lets out a cheer. All eyes are on the player as he rounds first base, with the exception of a solitary set. Josh Jacobs looks on, like a concerned parent, watching the player’s bat as it carelessly rolls in the dirt.
Most observers wouldn’t think twice about the health of an inanimate wooden stick, but the St. Cloud State junior has a special interest in the baseball bat. It’s his. Well, it was his.
Since high school, Jacobs has been crafting custom bats for players on his hometown Bird Island Bullfrogs, a Minnesota amateur baseball team. He got the notion to make bats on his parents’ lathe after watching a bat-making program on PBS with his father Tom.
“I said, ‘I can do that,’” Jacobs recalled. “So my dad and I started trying to make a bat.”
“First, we tried to glue together a few boards with different types of wood,” the Olivia, Minn., native said.
“By word of mouth, people started to take interest and wanted to know if I could make them a bat.”
Soon, JJ Bats was born.
“He asked if he could make me some bats,” said Mike Nagel, a local optometrist, who helped found the Olivia Pilots (now Bird Island Bullfrogs) in 1990. “He used me as a guinea pig. I told him what we wanted, and we have bought one- or two-dozen bats since.”
Jacobs said the first incarnations of his bats were pretty durable, until one broke in its first few plate appearances.
“It broke on like the second swing,” Jacobs remembered.
“I felt really bad and gave the guy his money back.”
After that, Jacobs researched how larger companies make professional grade bats. Instead of gluing together Ash wood boards with Gorilla Glue, he crafts the bat from a single log of Pennsylvania maplewood. He orders the wooden cylinders online from Max Bats, a bat-making company that lists Major League Baseball players on its client list. Jacobs inspects every piece of wood to make sure there are no knots or other defects that will weaken the wood. On his father’s farm, he hand lathes every bat. Now, the bats are almost too durable.
“I’ve hurt business by making bats that last too long,” Jacobs joked.
Traditionally using wood bats in amateur baseball is part of the aura and appeal, but a team can break four or five bats in a single game. For amateur ball players, who pay for their own bats, durability of wood is a greatly appreciated commodity.
“It’s tough when guys have to blow about a day’s paycheck on a bat,” said Nagel, who doubles as a player-coach. “The nice thing about his bats is they last longer than anything we’ve used.”
A custom-made bat is designed to specific weight, length and handle. It can include as much or little detail as the client desires. Many request their name burned into the Young entrepreneur Josh Jacobs creates a baseball bat on a lathe. wood and some want a custom paint job. For that, Jacobs gets help from his mother Sheila, a local Olivia artist whose main medium is stained glass.
Nagel said Jacobs has inherited a lot of his mom’s artistic talent and readily applies it to his craft. “Some of the guys like the natural look and some like to paint the team’s color. Josh will do whatever you want, and he wants them to be absolutely perfect.”
Josh and his mom teamed up for his biggest job: A 10-foot bat built for the 2010 Minnesota Amateur Baseball Tournament at Lion’s Memorial Park, Bird Island’s stadium. The bat still casts a shadow outside of the park, despite a recent storm that flattened the park’s west dugout.
“He was nice enough to build this big bat, which is a cool nuance to our field,” Nagel said.
Jacobs is studying business management at St. Cloud State and is learning how to expand the presence of JJ Bats.
“I’m trying to figure out if I want to try to make this into a full-time business,” Jacobs said.
Regardless of whether or not Jacobs tries to make custom bats a major league hit, there are some hometown heroes who will stay loyal to Jacobs’ bats.
“We’ll probably order six more 32 or 33 ounce bats for next season,” Nagel said. “Hopefully, with JJ Bats we’ll be on our way to making it back to the state tourney.”