A Minnesota company started small but now is competing with the giants of the baseball bats business.
By TYLER MASON FS North
It started as a hobby, but a Minnesota-based company has transformed itself into one of the best-known bat makers in baseball.
The company, MaxBat, was formed when Jim Anderson started making bats in his basement after his son Max was born in 2001. Anderson lost his job as a sales rep later that year and had what he calls a "crazy idea" to start making baseball bats. Anderson partnered with Paul Johnson and his father, Dick Johnson, who had a background in wood-turning.
Soon, MaxBat was born.
Today, a decade later, some of baseball's star players as well as its up-and-coming prospects are swinging a MaxBat. The company is based in tiny Brooten, Minn., a town of fewer than 1,000 people located about two hours northwest of the Twin Cities. MaxBat has just 10 employees, but it churns out around 30,000 bats a year.
The first major leaguer to ever swing a MaxBat, however, was another Twin. Anderson and Johnson approached first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz in 2003. The duo was told that if they could customize a bat Mientkiewicz liked, they could do well in the business.
Sure enough, Mientkiewicz gave MaxBat a chance, and the company took off from there.
"We were pretty pumped up because we knew that we made a good product and we knew that players need good products," Anderson said. "We figured that, 'On the one hand, we can do this. There's no reason why players and teams shouldn't order bats from us.'
"On the other hand, we're also thinking, 'Well, who are we to be in this situation? No one knows who we are. There are the old companies that people order bats from for years and years and years. Why should teams order from us?' "
It has taken time, but MaxBat is finally swinging with the big boys of the wood bat industry. So what sets MaxBat apart from other bat companies? How can it compete with a baseball mainstay such as Louisville Slugger, which has been around for over a century?
Ask the players and they'll tell you there are several factors make MaxBat desirable.
"What separates them is their personal level and their customer service," said Gomes, who has been on board with MaxBat since 2004. "Not only have we worked together to really design my bat — it's not just the cookie cutter, 'This size, this weight.' … We're always tampering with it. I think what separates them is just how personal they are. Some companies have four or five models and that's it. These guys can tweak something down to the centimeter and down to the ounce."
Plouffe has also been using MaxBat since 2004, his first year in the Twins' minor league system. Anderson sent him a bat while Plouffe was playing rookie ball with the Elizabethton Twins.
"I had a couple different companies do that, but I just really liked the way it felt," Plouffe said. "I thought the wood was really dense. The ball was jumping off my bat, and I just went with it."
MaxBat has three different types of wood used to make its bats: maple, birch and ash. Gomes uses maple, while Plouffe said he switched to an ash model a few seasons ago because it's a bit lighter than the maple. While swinging MaxBat this season, Plouffe has hit 19 home runs, second-most on the Twins.
Anderson said MaxBat takes pride in the strength of its bats. The company obtains the wood from logs that are split, not sawed. As a result, the grains of the bats are straighter. Major League Baseball keeps track of broken bats, Anderson said: which types of wood break, which players' bats break and which direction the broken pieces of bats end up going when they do break.
"We're never on that list," Anderson said.
Adds Gomes: "I do think the wood, the maple I get from Max, is extremely hard and high-quality."
Infielder Alexi Casilla, Plouffe's teammate in Minnesota, also uses MaxBat. He saw fellow infielder Luis Castillo swing a MaxBat when he was with the Twins and gave it a try.
"You use what you like," Casilla said. "If you feel comfortable with some model, you customize it. I wanted a big handle and big barrel, so they make it the way you like. You feel good using it."
MaxBat has come a long way since its inception nearly a decade ago, and the company is still growing. It recently started selling its own brand of batting gloves, although bats are still the primary focus. Though their client list already boasts some of MLB's stars, Anderson and the Johnson would love to see more players swinging MaxBat in the coming years.
And as MaxBat has shown, the small company from small-town Minnesota certainly has the confidence to make it big in the bat business.
"We're in the business obviously to make money, but we want to make a good product," Anderson said. "I knew we would be successful because of the product that we made. I just knew that we could be one of the top companies in baseball if given enough time."