The Milwaukee Brewers’ slugging success takes talent, hours of practice and quality coaching. And that success gets a boost from a small town in northern Wisconsin.
The founder of Rock Bats, Madison native Roland Hernandez, works with Zelazoski Wood Products in Antigo, the company that manufactures the bats and is now a Rock Bats minority owner. The bats are made from Sugar Maple, which has overtaken white ash as the most popular wood used in major league bats.
“Now 60 percent of all bats in major league baseball, including Rock Bats, are made out of sugar maple,” Hernandez said. “It’s stiffer, stronger, harder and tougher than white ash.”
Hernandez, who has a wood science degree from Texas A&M and spent 17 years working with the USDA national wood products laboratory, did massive research about the best wood grain for bats before launching Rock Bats in 2002. He’s been running the company full time since 2007.
While working as a wood consultant for the Brewers three years ago, Hernandez attracted the attention of Brewers outfielder Corey Hart, who is now Rock Bats’ star client.
“Coming off a rough year, I started swinging it,” Hart said. “It started working. I kind of stuck with ’em. It’s such a hard bat, no reason to change.”
“In 2010, we only supplied the Brewers,” Hernandez said. “Corey that year decided to switch models. He’s even said he likes the feel of our bats.”
Hart made the All-Star team in 2010, hit well again last season and is off to a good start this year. But before he can swing for the fences, a lot of work goes into making sure he has the best bat for the job.
The creation of Hart’s bat starts at Kretz Lumber, just down the road from Zelazoski Wood Products in Antigo, where in the company’s back lot there is a vast field of sugar maple logs stretching to the horizon. Those logs are put through a process where the first step is having their bark stripped. The logs are then sawed and cut into planks. Wisconsin is one of the highest density growth states for sugar maple trees and only about 1 percent of the logs that are brought into the company’s lumber yard have the quality necessary to become a Rock Bat.
The planks are then air-dried and vacuum dried, a process that can take seven to 10 days before the planks are ready to be made into bats.
“A lot of steps and stages have to be done perfectly to arrive at that great professional quality bat,” Hernandez said.
“I’ve been in this business for over 40 years, and I think I’ve learned more about wood in the last seven years that we’ve been doing business with Rock Bats than all the time before that,” Ben Zelazoski, a Rock Bats minority owner, said.
The finished planks are then taken to a special lathe and in a matter of seconds; an indistinct plank of wood takes on the magical shape of a major league baseball bat.
Hernandez says MLB players are pretty picky when it comes to the look and feel of their bats.
“It’s gotta be perfect straight grain,” Hernandez said. “Professionals know it, they look for it, they can even test it and listen for it.”
Straight grain is a wood grain that runs in a single direction, parallel to the axis of the tree. That straight grain gives a bat increased strength in the handle and reduced weight in the barrel, which improves bat speed, durability and control. Corey Hart is a believer.
“Roland, the main guy in the company, he’s extremely smart and kind of a science guy,” Hart said. “He knows how to get the right wood and get a better batch of bats over the other companies.”
Colorado Rockies star Troy Tulowitzki saw Hart’s bat at the 2010 All-Star Game, and now Tulowitzki, Todd Helton, Jason Giambi and Carlos Gonzalez are among 19 Colorado players using Rock Bats. Six Brewers use the bats as well.
The company manufactures 300 bats a day but it is ready to expand by attracting other MLB players. Hernandez thinks the sky is the limit for Rock Bats and enjoys how what happens in this small corner of a small town, where a small group of workers take pride in their craft, could help the Brewers win the pennant.
“They don’t want to send out a product that they’re going to see bust into pieces on television,” Zelazoski said.
“We’re Brewers fans,” Hernandez, who admits he gets nervous at every inside pitch to Hart, fearing an irregular foul tip said, “Because even our bats break sometimes.
“Anytime we find a great piece of wood, we’re going to set it aside for the Brewer players. We know when we put a piece of wood into a lathe to make a bat, it just doesn’t get any better than that.”