LACEY, WASHINGTON —
There's an age-old tension between honoring tradition and embracing innovation.
A family-owned sporting goods company in suburban Seattle is confronting that tension in the sport of baseball. The company is going to market with what it calls a better baseball bat.
The traditional round-handled
baseball bat has been a fixture on sand lots and in stadiums around much of the world for more than a century. Back when bats were turned out on a lathe, there was good reason for the symmetrical design.
But now, computer-guided machine tools can churn out any shape you want, including a more ergonomic design, such as that of an axe handle.
"[The axe handle] has been around forever, and there's a reason why," said former baseball coach Rusty Trudeau.
Trudeau is now a national account manager for Baden Sports of Renton, in the northwest U.S. state of Washington.
The company's patented Axe Bat
has the usual barrel, but while a traditional bat has a circular knob at the base of a round handle, the new bat has an oval grip and an angled knob.
Trudeau says the redesign offers better bat control, more power and lower risk of hand injuries.
"That round knob protruding into the palm - or the hamate bone area of your hand - creates a lot of injuries," he said. "In fact, when we presented to Major League Baseball, that was a key factor in our presentation -- keeping the money in the game, preventing injury and hand fatigue."
Baden is a 35-year-old sporting goods company better known until now as a ball supplier. It licensed the axe-handled bat design from New York woodworker Bruce Leinert, who invented and patented it.
"If we can't bring something new and help people do better at whatever sport they choose, then we don't think it is worth pursuing," said CEO Michael Schindler, explaining why the company is branching out into bats.
The company's baseball and softball bats range from $50 to $300, which places them in the middle to upper price tiers.
Schindler is impatient to see players try out and adopt the new bat style. His company has embarked on what could be a lengthy campaign to convince players to try something new.
Timberline High School players in Lacey, Washington, used the axe bat in warmups, but stayed with the traditional bats for the actual game. (T. Banse/VOA).
There were several of the new bats in the dugout for a recent showdown of high school baseball division leaders in Lacey, Washington.
The Timberline High School team used one in warm-ups, but during the actual game all the players wielded regular bats. They reverted to what they knew best, says Tyler Gartner, an infielder and pitcher who has tried the new style bat.
"I like the pop from it, he said. "The flaw is the handle a little bit because you can't move your hand around as much."
Gartner likes to rotate his grip, but he thinks the new design has a chance of catching on with players with different preferences.
Timberline High School coach Matt Acker also figures the axe handle bat will eventually capture some market share, especially with the youngest players, who are among the most open to equipment change.
"It automatically feels better to a younger kid. If you give it - and I have, I have handed them - to younger kids that are 7 years old and you just let them pick one, they'll pick that one because it feels the best," Acker said. "It just feels natural to you."
Acker says change takes time in baseball. Superstition is also a factor.
Trudeau, of bat maker Baden Sports, appreciates what he's up against. "Baseball is a very tradition-driven sport. That is a challenge at times."
He allows many players to test the unusual bat. He's also signed a number of college teams to swing the axe-handled bat. Baden, though, has a smaller advertising budget than its bigger competitors. Trudeau hopes to get more high-profile endorsers as college players turn pro.
"We really think we're going to overcome," he said. "We know we're going to overcome this. This is going to be the handle of the future."