Baseball’s familiar call to action — batter up! — echoes in ballparks big and small across Canada, as summer’s favourite pastime proves it has not lost its relevance, even in this tech-focused age.
When a player steps up to the plate to stare down the opposing pitcher, he comes armed with his instrument of choice — a bat to help “hit one out of the park.” It’s a piece of equipment that has to fit the player’s hand, stature and swing — it has to feel right so the batter can do his job.
Yes, a bat is much more than just a stick. And yet, as in the early days of the sport, a bat still begins as a simple piece of wood. In the workshop of a Red Deer company, that piece of wood is carefully selected, weighed, shaped and customized to each ball player’s specifications.
Prairie Sticks Bat Company is the goto place in western Canada for custom wooden baseball bats. President Jared Greenberg, a baseball player himself, launched the company out of his garage in 2001, along with a fellow player. From those humble beginnings, Prairie Sticks has become the service-oriented supplier of choice for players from young amateurs all the way up to major league swingers.
The journey from hunk of wood into baseball magic begins in the forest. There are three types of trees that produce the kind of wood best suited for baseball bats, Greenberg says. About 85 per cent of Prairie Sticks’ amateur bats are made of maple, 12 per cent are made of birch with a few made from ash.
“Maple is best because of its strength, hardness and durability,” explains Greenberg. “And birch is a little bit more flexible than maple.”
Prairie Sticks has its wood shipped in from mills in Quebec and New York. It comes in “billets”, each measuring 37 inches long and 2¾ inches in diameter. The billets hit the scale for the first of at least four weigh-ins, and are then sorted by weight, which is marked on their ends. »
Jared Greenberg’s (left and above) company, Prairie Sticks Bat Company, sells its wooden bats mainly to players in amateur ranks but some have made it all the way to the big leagues
Then it’s time to check the order list, where customers indicate their preference for length, weight, colour, shape and sometimes even a name stamp on their bat, before wood is placed on the lathe. “We started with the kind of hand lathe you’d find in your Grade 9 shop class,” says Greenberg. “Then we went to another type of tracing lathe, and now we use a hydraulic tracing lathe.”
Prairie Sticks has a wide variety of handmade templates used on the lathe, each with different specifications. Bat sizes range from 21 inches, ideal for youth, up to 35 inches long for adults. Greenberg says a rule of thumb is generally a 3:1 weight-to-length ratio. Pinpoint accuracy is key. As Greenberg points out, even a hundredth of an inch can make a difference to the feel of a bat.
In just two minutes, the bat takes shape on the lathe. The ends are then cut off to achieve the correct length and the first sanding happens before the product heads to the finishing room. There, each bat is hand dipped in a special lacquer stain to match colour requests, hung up to dry and dipped again for as second coat. “We weigh everything out so the mix has the proper viscosity, and runs well on the bats,” says Greenberg.
“There’s a sanding step between each coat,” he says, “That’s where the aesthetics part comes in.” The bats are sanded to a rich, smooth-as-glass finish. “That’s kind of the trend the last couple of years — who can make the shiniest bats,” Greenberg laughs. A laser engraving machine adds the model number, logo, player or team name and sometimes even a player’s signature. “Everyone wants some sort of personalization this day and age!”
The final step, “cupping”, involves hollowing out a small portion at the top of the bat, which allows Prairie Sticks to adjust the overall bat weight to the desired number. After that, the bat is ready to be shipped to its new owner.
Prairie Sticks usually needs about a week to 10 days to fill an individual order. Prices range from around $85 for a youth bat to upwards of $110 for a high-end professional bat. The company’s website even has a “visualizer” to help customers see what their order will look like.
While the company has some minor league business and some bats have even gone to the big leagues, its bread and butter remains the sport’s amateur ranks. Prairie Sticks sets up a booth, selling bats on site, at close to 20 baseball tournaments each summer in western Canada. “Being present shows we’re committed to the grassroots level,” says Greenberg.
Working with a natural resource like wood, which has natural density differences, and catering to a sometimes hard-to-quantify goal has its challenges, but that’s what Greenberg enjoys. “As a baseball player, you just pick up a bat and say, ‘OK, this feels good,'” he says.
On the flip side, taking an unfinished piece of wood all the way to a glossy customized bat that gives ball players exactly what they’re looking for is a fulfilling task for Jared Greenberg. It’s grown into a business that, for him, is definitely a “home run!”