“Bats? You want to talk about my bats?” Albert Pujols asked incredulously, whirling around to look me straight in the eye for the first time I can ever recall. I knew right then and there that I had hit on something.
All bad puns aside, I was assured that I had selected a fresh topic, one that is seemingly always taken for granted and not understood or appreciated by the average fan, yet is paramount to a hitters’ success.
After all, there is arguably nothing about coming to the plate that remains totally under a hitters’ control that is more important to them than their trusty lumber. Some Cardinals, like Scott Rolen, for example, always seem to have a bat in their hands, even when basking in the relative sanctity of the clubhouse.
All these men have one thing in common, that piece of wood that accompanies them to home plate every at-bat. But, exactly what bats do they use? What weight and length are they? What is their construction? Do the players change off their bats? How are they cared for?
I asked the members of the starting lineup about their preferences, as well as a representative of the bench corps and even a pitcher. In Saturday’s companion piece, available only to Birdhouse subscribers, I will share my player discussions about their choice in lumber.
But, the proper place to begin such a subject isn’t with a player. It’s with Rip Rowan, the Cardinals’ Equipment Manager. While his crew of workers is charged with care of every piece of team paraphernalia down to socks, Rowan plays a special role when it comes to bats. He needs to understand the individual preferences of each player and ensure their supply line of fresh lumber is uninterrupted.
Rowan is qualified for this responsibility on several planes. First of all, he joined the team in 1978 as the visitor’s bat boy and has been employed by the team ever since. This is Rowan’s third year as head equipment manager, after serving as Buddy Bates’ assistant for 15 years.
Rowan modestly downplayed his role in what is a very important part of the game. “The guys are pretty much on their own with regard to bats. When they need them, they’ll come and tell us and we’ll fill the orders for them.”
Cardinals players always come to Rowan knowing exactly what they want in their bats. “I never try to sway them one way or another about which bats they use. I will tell them if one company can deliver them more quickly than another. If a guy is in desperate need of bats as long as they are not under contract with a company, guys will switch around. If they get in a slump, they will change bats around. They will change sizes. They will change companies.”
Cardinals players use bats manufactured by a handful of companies. Some names are household ones, while others may be less familiar. “There are guys under contract with Louisville who will swing a Louisville bat all the time. Guys not under contract will try Louisville; go over to Adirondack and Sam and X Bat. That is a majority of them we have here.”
The preferred wood for bats has been changing in recent times. “Ash has mostly been used over the years. Maple has come out in recent years and more guys are going to maple. I’d say we’re 50% ash and 50% maple at this point in time. Sometimes, it’s hard to get maple. A lot of guys swing a lighter bat and it’s harder to get a heavier wood like maple in a lighter bat. If it a big-barrelled model, it is hard to get when it is that light.”
The bat companies understand their products are under constant scrutiny, but some orders are more difficult to fill than others. “These companies are pretty selective in sending out their lumber. They want to send out great stuff. It is easier if they have a guy that swings a 34-32 (length-weight). If a guy wants a 34-30 or 34-31, it’s tougher to get that selective piece of wood to make them happy.”
I asked Rowan if there is any validity in the legend that the better players get the better quality wood. “I think the bat companies would disagree with that. I don’t know.”
While Rowan may disagree, at least some players think there is something to it. “I have had guys ask me before to order bats with other guy’s names on them. I think a lot of it is in their head.”
Rowan acknowledged that a prolonged dry period will drive players to sometimes stray from their tried and true brands, even when under contract. Said Rowan, “When they’re in a slump, they’ll mix it up a bit.”
How frequently players go through bats depends on the individual. “If a guy uses maple, they break less. That is a stronger wood, so they tend to get more use out of them. If you get a good hitter, they also don’t swing at a lot of bad pitches that would break bats. They’re very selective at the plate, so they don’t break as many bats.”
Players take notice when their peers receive an order. “When these guys get bats in, they’ll pass them around to each other. In fact, I know Albert is swinging a bat of Yadier’s right now. Chris Carpenter got some bats in last week and five or six guys wanted them. Then, he comes to me saying “I might to get some more bats again real soon as these guys are taking all mine.” He uses X Bats and the guys like that. It’s a hard wood.”
“Usually they get a dozen at a time. If a guy wants to try something different, if he’s not sure, he might get six of them.” An order of a dozen bats might yield only a few keepers, though. “A lot of guys are very selective. When they get a dozen bats in, they might like only four or five of them and consider them “gamers”. The rest of them, they’ll use for BP (batting practice).”
I asked Rowan about any players’ idiosyncrasies concerning their bats. Either they don’t have any or Rowan wisely knew better than to tell me about it. He did note, however, that retired slugger Mark McGwire requested special care when his bats were in transport.
“McGwire used to put his in sanitaries, because when you put the bats in the bat bags and you put a black bat next to a white bat, it will leave big marks, streaks down the barrel. Albert did that for awhile, but most of these guys are easy-going. Guys like Larry Walker will just grab a bat and go swing.”
Yet, despite the seemingly-nonchalant attitude of a Walker for example, the players do pay a lot of attention. In fact, team boundaries aren’t all that important when the subject is hitting. “They watch what each other are swinging. They’re pretty particular about it. They talk about it with each other. When we get out of here from Atlanta, we might find a Brian Jordan bat stuck away in here that somebody saw and liked and wanted. These guys pass them all around.”
Sam Bat was a new name to me, so I asked Rowan about them. “Barry Bonds kind of put them on the map. When Barry started using them, I am sure he gave a few away. And then, others are ordering them. They are a company out of Canada. It is a maple bat and they were one of the first big suppliers of maple that players liked. These guys pass a lot back and forth. Sam got pretty big pretty quick.” You can tell the mark of a Sam Bat, as their logo is that of the furry, flying mammal.
Rowan recounts the challenge a salesman for a new bat company faces when trying to convince one of the Cardinals players to sample his wares. “These guys here are pretty set. You’ll get a company come into spring training saying “I can’t get an order from any of these guys.” I tell them, “Jim Edmonds has been swinging this bat and he hit .300. He’s an established big-leaguer and isn’t going to change. You’ve got to work on these young kids. Give these young guys some bats and get them on your side and when they come to the big leagues, they might want to stay loyal to the ones who took care of them when they were a kid.””
Divulging information on which players are aligned with which companies is an area about which Rowan preferred to stay clear. “That is between the player, their agent and the bat companies. However, if they’re swinging a Louisville bat and it is a signature model, with an autograph, then I believe that shows they are a contract player.” That would be opposed to their name being stamped in block letters.
When it comes to the current team, not surprisingly, Pujols takes his bats very seriously.
“Albert’s one of the pickiest guys with bats. He is very, very selective. When he gets an order in, he will look at each one. He will weigh each one of them.” The team has a scale in the clubhouse, which Rowan joked is not a good thing sometimes. After all, it is he who has to deal with the bat company if the order is not to spec.
Surprisingly, Rowan and his team of attendants have very little extra work when it comes to lumber care. “The guys are on their own with their bats. The only thing we do is put bat bags out on getaway days in St. Louis when we leave and they pack up whatever they want to take on the road.”
The players don’t need to say more, as they know their bat needs are in good hands.
Come right back here Saturday, when subscribers can read about how the Cardinals’ players themselves describe their lumber of choice. If you’ve not yet joined, take advantage of our seven-day free trial now.
Links to related articles:
”The Birds’ Bats – Part Two”
”The Birds’ Bats – Part Three”
Brian Walton can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.