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Swing fever


ESF grad Ron Vander Groef makes bats for MLB
6/6

PAUL POST, The Saratogian 05/25/2005

DOLGEVILLE -- Ron Vander Groef's first love is wood. The fact that he helps major league ballplayers win the World Series and put together Hall of Fame careers is incidental.

But it's a fun part of his job, nonetheless, as plant supervisor at Rawlings-Adirondack Bat Co.

'One of the things I liked about this place, and it continues to be that way, is we don't just make a piece of wood,' said Vander Groef, a graduate of SUNY College of Environmental Science & Forestry. 'We shape a piece of wood. We finish a piece of wood and then we get to see it on TV.' So do millions of other fans tuning in to nationally televised games.

'I don't really care about the score. I care about how many of our bats are in the game. If somebody gets a hit, that's a good feeling,' he said.

This Mohawk Valley factory has been putting bats in big league hands for almost 60 years. Players from Mel Ott to Willie Mays and Reggie Jackson have used this brand, and it's the weapon of choice for about 20 percent of today's players as well.

Every Rawlings-Adirondack wood bat in the country comes from this factory, which turns out about 400,000 per year. Of these, roughly 15,000 go to the major leagues, with the rest headed to retailers throughout the nation. 'The best of the best goes to the pros, and it trickles on down from there,' Vander Groef said. 'The pro bats are selected from absolutely top grain, and we also look for the absolute lightest weights so we can meet the requirements of the players.'

Bill Steele has been making the big league bats since 1972. One of his first clients, Jackson, liked a handle that was just a tad under an inch in diameter.

Today's players want even thinner handles to produce more bat speed, increasing their chances of hitting a home run.

'They're looking for a big barrel, small handle and a very light piece of wood,' Steele said. 'That's the biggest problem we've got. There's a lot of breakage.'

One of Steele's most valuable possessions is a notebook containing exact specifications from each of his roughly 130 big league customers. To him, it's no less important than the presidential 'football' containing codes to the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

Steele has his own bat-making shop in one corner of this vast manufacturing plant. The walls are lined with model bats from every one of Adirondack's impressive client list, including Stan Musial, Mike Schmidt, Cal Ripken Jr.

'There's a bunch of bats that I made over the years that are in the Hall of Fame,' Steele said. 'Bats used by Mays, Jackson, Roberto Clemente.' Having a superstar get hot is the best thing possible for business. In 1998, Mark McGwire used Rawlings-Adirondack bats to break Roger Maris' single-season record for home runs. Retail sales skyrocketed and many other big leaguers began using these bats as well.

Of course, any bat is only as good as the tree from which it's made, and this firm has an extensive network of independent loggers and brokers to draw from.

'We'll have anywhere from 200,000 board feet of logs in the yard at one time,' Vander Groef said. 'All the wood comes on trucks. We don't own any of our own forestland.'

Logs are first de-barked with a huge piece of apparatus, then sent to the sawmill, where they're cut into 40-inch sections. Wood destined for pro bats is machine-split into pie-shaped lengths, similar to splitting firewood.

'Then we put that on a lathe and turn it into a 3-? inch round billet,' he said. Then the wood must be kiln-dried for a roughly 35-day period. Less than half of each log cut winds up as a bat. Shredded bark, sawdust and mulch have end markets all their own, while pieces of scrap timber are sold as firewood.

At one time, all bats were made from ash.

Maple has become increasingly popular since Barry Bonds used that type of bat to surpass McGwire as the new single-season home run champion. 'Maple bats are 3 to 4 ounces heavier,' Vander Groef said.

'It's a harder wood and I would suspect if a player can swing it, the ball will go farther. But when a maple bat breaks, it breaks in pieces and the pieces fly, so it's more dangerous, he said.

'When ash bats break they usually crack, and the pieces don't fly,' Vander Groef said.

After drying, round billets are sent to the production line for manufacturing. Bats are formed on a lathe, trimmed and sanded. The majority of major league bats are 33? or 34 inches long, although players such as Garret Andersen and Julio Franco use 35-inch models that weigh 34 and 33 ounces, respectively.

Each Rawlings-Adirondack bat bears a trademark colored ring around the top of its handle.

Some players prefer plain bats. Others like their bats painted black, red or a two-toned variety.

Mary Barnes has the job of printing each big leaguer's name on the end of their bats.

When the Red Sox recently signed John Olerud to a minor-league contract, he called a day later for a fresh order of bats.

'A player will probably order 10 dozen bats in a year,' Vander Groef said. 'It basically goes from spring training to just before World Series time.' Claude 'Digger' Lasher, 67, has worked at the plant for 50 years, starting out part time when he was still in high school. During its heyday, the factory employed 200 people.

'This place used to make bases, footballs, hockey sticks, bowling pins, even billy clubs for state troopers,' he said.

The payroll has since shrunk to 45 workers, partially the result of automation but also from the widespread use of aluminum bats. But as long as kids and grown men play baseball, there will never be anything like the crack of a wooden bat from a well-hit ball.

©The Saratogian 2005


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