A family-owned sporting goods company in suburban Seattle is confronting the tension between honoring tradition and embracing innovation 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 for 150 years. 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.
So if you could choose, why not go for a more ergonomic handle? It makes sense to former baseball coach Rusty Trudeau.
Better control and more power
"The concept from our standpoint is the ergonomics of an axe," he explains. "It's been around forever and there's a reason why."
Trudeau is now a national account manager for Baden Sports of Renton, Washington. He holds up his company's patented Axe Bat. The barrel looks the same as always. But remember how a traditional bat has a circular knob at the base of a round handle? This new bat has an oval grip and angled knob.
Trudeau ticks off attributes he claims result from the redesign: better bat control, more power and lower risk of hand injuries compared to the traditional style.
"That round knob protruding into the palm -- or the hamate bone area of your hand -- creates a lot of injuries," he says. "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."
Trudeau and company have embarked on what will probably be a lengthy campaign to convince players of America's pastime to try something new.
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," says CEO Michael Schindler by way of explaining why he chose this time to branch into bats.
The suburban Seattle company prices its baseball and softball bats between $50-$300, which places them in the middle to upper price tiers.
Schindler describes himself as "very impatient" to see players try out and adopt the new bat style, but concedes, "it is what it is." The privately-held company does not disclose its annual sales.
"The handle of the future"
Trudeau does lots of demos. He's also signed a bunch of college teams to swing the axe-handled bat including the University of Puget Sound and Pacific Lutheran. Baden though has less money to throw around 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. We know we're going to overcome this. This is going to be the handle of the future."
Trudeau says wooden and metal axe bats have been approved for use at all levels of baseball and softball from Little League to the majors.
There were several of the new bats in the dugout for a showdown of high school baseball division leaders in Lacey, Washington recently. 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 says. "The flaw is the handle a little bit because you can't move your hand around as much."
Gartner says he prefers to rotate his grip. But he gives the new geometry a chance to catch on with players who have different preferences.
Timberline High School head coach Matt Acker also figures the axe-handle bat will eventually capture some market share. He says the youngest players are among the most open to equipment change.
"It automatically feels better to a younger kid," says Acker. "If you give it -- and I have, I have handed them -- to younger kids that are seven years old and you just let them pick one, they'll pick that one because it feels the best. It just feels natural to you."
Acker says, "Change in baseball takes time." There's superstition, too. Rusty Trudeau says he appreciates what he is up against.
"Baseball is a very tradition-driven sport. That is a challenge at times."
Other manufacturers are experimenting with other parts of the baseball bat according to Jeff Kensrud, manager of Washington State University's Sports Science Laboratory. "There is always something new coming through," Kensrud says before mentioning "enlarging the sweet spot" on the barrel as another innovation he has seen recently.
The WSU lab contracts with bat and ball makers to verify that new products comply with association and league standards.