Sam Bat Factory Tour #2 – April 28

If you’re a longtime reader of my blog, you might recall when I had the opportunity back in 2012 to tour the Sam Bat factory just outside of Ottawa, Canada. It was undoubtedly one of the coolest experiences I’ve had since starting The Ballpark Guide, and that particular blog post ranks second in terms of traffic of the 225+ posts I’ve written.

So, when I had another opportunity to tour the factory and check out the company’s brand-new facilities, I jumped all over it like a hanging curve ball.

Sam Bat is a bat company headquartered in the small town of Carleton Place in Eastern Ontario, Canada, and the company is currently celebrating its 20th year in business. You might already know Sam Bat’s story — if not, it’s a company that completely revolutionized professional baseball by introducing maple bats. Prior to Sam Bat’s maple bats being used in the big leagues, bats were all made of ash. Now, more than 75 percent of bats used in the pros are made of maple due to this wood’s hardness and durability. You can read more about the company here.

Barry Bonds swung a Sam Bat during his record-breaking 73 home run season. More recently, Miguel Cabrera used this company’s bats during his 2012 Triple Crown season, and still uses them. A long list of players, including Ryan Braun, Jason Kipnis, Michael Brantley and Melky Cabrera, are current Sam Bat users. Even Blue Jays slugger Jose Bautista used a Sam Bat during his 54 home run season in 2010.

On the afternoon of April 28, I met up with Kevin Rathwell, who handles the company’s Canadian sales. We met in the company’s head office, which I’d visited last time, and soon headed over to the new showroom building that wasn’t in use during my last visit. The lobby of the new building was baseball heaven, and it was hard not to want to just stand with my mouth open and stare at everything. I recognized a few of the display pieces from my last visit, including the framed Bonds piece on the wall, but there were a ton of other interesting things, like a Miguel Cabrera bat laying on the counter, a Jose Canseco signed bat, and more:

Although we’d be checking out the factory soon enough, Kevin wanted to show me a short video on how the bats are made. It’s a standard tour stop, and an easy way to get an overview of the creation process. The video room not only has a bunch of photos of bats in various stages of being built, but also one of Sam’s old lathes:

After the video, Kevin had another cool thing for me to see — the use of Sam Bat products in MLB 15 The Show for PlayStation. Sam Bat is one of just a handful of bat manufacturers licensed for use in this video game. Kevin loaded a game between the Tigers and Brewers and, sure enough, there was Cabrera with the gold bat logo clearly visible on his lumber:

Next, we stepped into a large showroom where, to my surprise, there were a few dozen bats made by different manufacturers hanging overhead:

Perhaps sensing my upcoming question, Kevin quickly explained why competitors’ bats were on display at Sam Bat. When a player is interested in having a custom bat made for him by Sam Bat, he will sometimes send the company one of his current bats — there’s no copyrighting bat shape, which means that Sam Bat (or any company, really) can then make a custom bat for the player with the same shape and to the same specs as another company’s bat. In the above photo, there are bats from a number of past and current MLB stars, including Manny Ramirez, Gary Sheffield, Ryan Zimmerman, Jason Heyward, Troy Tulowitzki and B.J. Upton.

Below the hanging bats, Kevin pointed out a display that showed all of the bat colors that are approved by Major League Baseball. It wasn’t something that I’d previously thought about, but players obviously don’t step up to the plate with wacky-colored bats. That’s because, as you might expect, MLB meticulously defines which colors are appropriate, as you’ll see on the lower half of this photo:

Another awesome sight in the showroom was the use of Fathead wall decals featuring the Sam Bat brand. As it turns out, the Sam Bat logo is visible in a number of Fatheads, including Cabrera …

… and slugger Giancarlo Stanton:

Now, Stanton isn’t a regular Sam Bat user, but he swung one in the 2016 All-Star Game Home Run Derby, crushing 61 total bombs and the 10 longest home runs of the night to win the event. Interestingly, the bat that Stanton was swinging wasn’t made for him. It belonged to teammate Marcell Ozuna. Mired in a pre-break slump, Stanton tried out one of Ozuna’s bats and did well with it. So well, in fact, that Sam Bat hurriedly made some bats for Stanton, but he continued to rely on Ozuna’s lumber. And, when the derby came around, it was a Ozuna’s Sam Bat in Stanton’s hands.

Here’s another quick anecdote that I found interesting: Ozuna himself began using Sam Bat’s products after then-Marlins hitting coach Barry Bonds recommended the company. Facing a slump of his own in May, Ozuna tried out one of Bonds’ bats and began to hit with it. He liked the bat so much that he got Sam Bat to make some custom bats for him, and cruised to his first all-star berth.

I loved hearing stories like these. As a baseball fan, you watch the game on TV carefully, but these sorts of stories show that you really don’t have a complete idea of what’s going on, so it was awesome to get some behind-the-scenes details.

But don’t get me wrong — my visit to Sam Bat wasn’t just about learning. I also had a chance to act goofy, as evidenced here:

As you might guess, this is me holding an enormous novelty bat. Sam Bat doesn’t produce bats of this size; rather, an employee whose family member came across the bat took it into the shop, where it was painted up and adorned with the company’s logo. It’s a cool piece, but you’d need arms bigger than mine to swing it. Just for good measure, here’s another shot that shows you just how big this bat is:

Our next stop on the tour was the other side of the showroom, which featured a number of interesting products for sale. Obviously, you’d expect to see all sorts of bat- and baseball-related items, but there were maple candlesticks, baseball holders and even Sam Bat-branded maple syrup:

Next, it was time to visit the factory itself, which I knew would be exciting. During my last tour, it was fascinating to watch bats being made by hand in front of me, and I knew I’d be in for more of the same. Perhaps the coolest thing about the manufacturing process at Sam Bat is just how hands-on it is. People are making the bats one by one and putting them through a series of important steps. By the time a bat is packaged up and shipped out, it’s been handled by eight or nine different employees. I toured the Louisville Slugger factory back in 2013, and while it was cool in its own right, the high degree of automation from such a large company doesn’t give you that hands-on feel that was obvious at Sam Bat.

When we walked into the factory, this rack is the first thing I noticed:

Lots of partially finished bats awaiting completion, right? Well, yes and no. This is a pile of bats that have been rejected for reasons such as knots. They won’t be finished and sold for use, but many will be finished and painted to be used as trophy bats — in other words, display pieces that aren’t swung in games.

Next, I checked out an enormous rack of maple blanks, which are also known as billets:

These are the rounded pieces of maple (essentially enormous dowels) that will be turned into bats. They’re weighed carefully to three decimal points and then the number is written by hand. So, if you see the blank in the middle with “5132” written on it, that number means that it’s 5.132 pounds. When an employee is building a bat, he obviously needs to have an end product of an exact weight — especially if it’s a bat being built for a professional. This means that he’ll need to choose his blank carefully, as a certain amount of wood (and weight) comes off as the bat is turned and sanded.

Once the blank is selected, it’s not simply inserted into a machine and turned into a bat within seconds. Whereas some companies use fancy equipment that stores specific bat shapes, Sam Bat uses more of a hands-on approach. The blank is placed in the lathe, while a sample bat is placed in a separate part of the lathe. The bottom bat is then traced by the lathe, which meticulously recreates its shape on the blank. This means, of course, that each player who uses or has used the company’s bats has a sample bat that is needed each time more bats are made. There’s an enormous rack of samples that covers much of an entire wall, and each player’s name is written on the sample barrel in Sharpie. Take a look at this photo of Kipnis’ samples:

This means that one of these sample bats is put into the tracing part of the lathe each time new bats are made for the Cleveland Indians all-star second baseman. Super cool.

Here are some of Melky Cabrera’s samples — and a mysterious sample labeled with “Melky” and “Bautista,” perhaps from when the two players were teammates in Toronto:

So, what does this setup on the lathe look like? You’ll be happy to know that I have pictures. As Kevin was showing me the samples, Al Maione came in to make some bats. He’s the company’s director of pro production, which means that he oversees bats made for big leaguers. Last time I visited, Al was making some bats for Andre Ethier. This time, he’d just received an order from Kipnis and was about to get started on turning some bats that would soon be on their way to the Progressive Field clubhouse. Take a look at the following shot:

Kipnis’ sample bat is at the bottom of the image, after being set in place to be traced. The blank, meanwhile, is above. As Al turned on the machine, the sample was traced, as you can see here …

… and the blank was turned into a bat to match the sample:

It’s obviously a highly precise process, which is why Kevin and Al were amused to show me a bat that had been recently sent to Sam Bat with a note attached from a 12-time all-star and nine-time Silver Slugger:

In what might be argued as another case of Manny being Manny, Ramirez had apparently taken a sharp implement and shaved down the handle of one of his Sam Bats, as you can see here, and was requesting that the company make him some bats with this handle profile:

The only problem is that because the work was done by hand, the handle was now wildly uneven. It might be hard to see in the above photo, but there’s a decent-sized indentation made in one section of the wood that isn’t repeated elsewhere — and you can imagine that Sam Bat isn’t too keen on producing a bat with such a glaring issue.

After checking out where the bats are sanded and buffed, we moved to the paint room. To me, it’s absolutely fascinating that a company that produces bats for major leaguers actually paints them by hand, but that’s exactly what happens here. After multiple coats of paint are applied, the bats are dried. Then, the barrel is laser etched (last time I visited, the wording was stamped on) and the bat sticker is put in place. Here’s a shot that shows a bunch of bats waiting to be shipped out:

There’s an interesting cross section of bats in the above photo. Those on the right side of the photo, including the stubby one, were ordered for an upcoming wedding to give as gifts to the groomsmen. The bat in the front middle is for Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Domingo Santana, while those to the left side of the image are for Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Jose Osuna. The bats on the left side with the black handles and light-colored barrels are for Miami’s Ozuna. If you look carefully, you’ll see some pink barrels in the background — those are special bats for Mother’s Day.

On our way out of the factory, we passed a series of racks where boxed bats were awaiting shipment. The name on this box caught my eye:

Because the box had yet to be sealed, Kevin actually let me pull out one of the bats and, seconds later, I was standing with a brand new bat that would soon be in the hands of Baltimore Orioles third baseman Manny Machado:

It’s not every day that you get to hold a bat that will eventually (and perhaps has already by now) been swung by a potential future hall of famer, right?

I also got the chance to hold a bat that was about to be shipped out to Josh Naylor:

He was a first-round pick of the Marlins in the 2015 draft and was traded to San Diego in the Andrew Cashner deal. He’s a Canadian, so he’s someone I’ve followed over the years. Less than two weeks after I checked out his bats, Naylor tweeted this:

Awesome, huh?

Although I could’ve hung out and played with Machado’s and Naylor’s bats for a while, there were other bats to hold. The final stop on our tour was the batting cage area, which is a new addition since my last visit. The angle of this photo makes the area look pretty standard …

… but this one, which shows the backdrop of thousands of bats and blanks, definitely makes this spot unique:

As you might expect, there was a chance to use some Sam Bat products in the cages. There were several five-gallon pails full of bats, and I had the choice of which lumber I wanted to try. Kevin snapped this shot of me looking very excited on my way to the cage:

It’s been a long time since I hit in a batting cage — likely 15 years or more — so I didn’t know what to expect. The machine was set to an average velocity, but because it was closer than the usual 60 feet, 6 inches away, it took me a little time to get my timing right. I opted to let the first pitch go to assess the speed, swung and missed on the second, fouled off the third and connected solidly on the fourth. All told, I hit for 10 to 15 minutes and had a blast. Plenty of embarrassing swings and misses, but lots of square contact that made me feel good. Here’s a shot of me preparing for a pitch …

… and one of me beginning my swing:

When you watch professionals take BP, they only take a handful of swings in a session — 10, maybe — before rotating out for a short break while a teammate hits. I didn’t have anyone else hitting with me, and a span of 10 to 15 minutes swinging maybe every 15 seconds is exhausting. I couldn’t resist snapping this shot of how sweaty I was after I stepped out of the cage, which was moderately embarrassing when we returned to the office to say hello to company president Arlene Anderson and I was wiping my face like I was in the Sahara:

Kevin ended up spending more than 90 minutes with me, and I can’t say how much I appreciate the entire experience. My thanks to Kevin, Arlene and Sam Bat for making this happen.

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