Every time Pablo Sandoval, the San Francisco Giants' beloved Kung Fu Panda, steps into the batter's box during this year's World Series against the Kansas City Royals, Pete Tucci will be cheering—not necessarily for the Giants to win their third championship in the last five seasons, but for the bat he'll be swinging.
Like the parents who've raised the players on these final two teams standing, Tucci is responsible for bringing Sandoval's bats into the world. In fact, this proud papa's fledgling company, Tucci Lumber, has supplied bats to six of Sandoval's teammates and dozens of other major leaguers.
Just as it's tough making it to the World Series, it's not easy getting a toehold in a market with a growing roster of veteran and upstart players. But that hasn't prevented Tucci from carving a niche in the baseball bat industry. Long dominated by big-name brands Louisville Slugger, Mizuno and Rawlings, and more recently Marucci Sports, it's seen a shift in recent years as more custom bat makers have entered the fray and are slugging it out to woo hitters.
In just two years, Tucci—a once-aspiring ball player turned entrepreneur—has won converts. All-Stars swinging Tucci bats include Altuve, Prince Fielder, Bryce Harper and Sandoval, who hit a lusty .400 in the five games of this year's National League Championship Series against the St. Louis Cardinals.
Tucci was your prototypical hometown hero, his storybook scripted in Norwalk, Connecticut, where he was a baseball phenom. He tore through the local Little League, then starred at Norwalk High School, class of 1993. He earned a scholarship to Providence College, sizzling for the Friars for three seasons, the last as a .363 hitter with 19 home runs and 59 runs batted in. His stellar résumé convinced the Toronto Blue Jays to make Tucci their first-round pick in the 1996 amateur draft, the 31st player chosen overall.
He steadily rose through the minor leagues; in '98, with the Jays' Class A-Advanced team in Dunedin, Florida, he hit a career-best .329, slugged 23 homers and drove in 76 runs, earning the organization's minor league Player of the Year Award. Even after he was traded to the San Diego Padres franchise in 1999, Tucci was primed to make it to the majors—until he fractured the hamate bone in his left hand, an injury that severely sapped his swing.
"My whole life was going according to plan until I broke my hand," he mused. "Then it got derailed. Two years later I was completely out of baseball."
Or was he?
Tucci returned to Norwalk in 2001 and eventually joined his brother-in-law, Marco Monteiro, in launching a heating and air-conditioning business. The transition from baseball to HVAC was going well enough, yet that new life went off the tracks, too, when his partner and best friend suffered a fatal heart attack in 2010. "He was the one with all the knowledge in the business, and after he passed away, I didn't think I could make a living doing that," he said.
It was around that time that Tucci's wife, Amy, noticing how he still missed baseball, bought him a hand lathe. She convinced him to set it up in their garage and learn how to turn a round piece of wood into a baseball bat. He did just that, and two years later, after selling Four Seasons Heating and Cooling, what started as a hobby became a full-time small business.
Today Tucci Lumber Company, out of the garage and into a 10,000-square-foot space with computerized lathes and eight employees, is selling maple and ash baseball bats to more than 150 Major League Baseball players. All-Stars swinging Tucci bats include Altuve, Prince Fielder, Bryce Harper and Sandoval, who hit a lusty .400 in the five games of this year's National League Championship Series against the St. Louis Cardinals.
A key reason for the proliferation of upstart bat makers is, "the barriers to entry aren't great," said Dan Halem, MLB's executive vice president of labor relations, who's responsible for negotiating bat regulations with the Major League Players Association. Whereas only well-heeled companies like Nike and Gatorade can afford to compete to supply commodities like uniforms and sports drinks, bat makers get in the door simply by applying to MLB, paying a fee of $10,000 and getting just a single player to order its bats. Still, "the smaller bat manufacturers have a very small piece of the market," about 10 percent, Halem adds.
Tucci considers his company a start-up—he expects his 2013 revenues of $630,000 to leap to $900,000 this year—but is up to the task of battling the much bigger and more experienced bat makers, such as Hillerich & Bradsby, makers of the iconic Louisville Slugger, as well as his fellow newcomers. Other small businesses making MLB-aapproved models: Axis Bats, Carrera Sports, Phoenix Bats, Trinity, B54 and Max Bat.
"It made sense to go into an industry I knew more about, even as limited as my knowledge was about making bats," he said. "Being a former player, I knew what the end product needed to be; I just didn't know how to get there."
Indeed, a bat is not a bat. Although all 38 companies currently approved by MLB to sell bats to its players—up from 32 last season and 23 a decade ago—purchase similar blank billets mostly from the same lumber mills in upstate New York, Pennsylvania and southern Canada, "a lot of it is what you do with the wood once you get it in your door," Tucci explained.
"My process of burnishing the bats with a hardened piece of steel ensures that each bat is as hard as it can possibly be," he wrote on his company's website. "This process compacts the outer layer of wood, diminishing fraying of ash bats and reduces seam marks and dents embedded in a maple bat. The result? A ball that 'jumps' off the bat because, essentially, the wood doesn't 'give.'"
Every season, in order to be approved by MLB, bat makers have to submit samples that meet strict specifications, but it's the hitters who are the final arbiters, another advantage for a former ball player like Tucci. He's become a familiar figure at spring training camps and inside clubhouses for such teams as the Houston Astros, Detroit Tigers, Colorado Rockies and Los Angeles Angels throughout the season, where he understands when players talk about troubles with their swings. He suggests some subtle customizations to his bat, such as narrowing the barrel to slightly adjust the weight.
Tucci takes his notes back to the shop, turns out a couple of samples and ships them to the player. "Next thing you know, he loves the model and places an order," he said.
"It's all about how the bat feels," said Colorado Rockies hitting coach Blake Doyle. He works with players on their mechanics and mental approach to hitting but never recommends one bat brand over another. "Once in a while, I will look at the size of the nob, because that can hinder grip strength and how they're gripping a bat. Other than that, with these guys, a bat's a bat."
Plus, it's more about who is swinging, not what he's swinging. "The bottom line: It's never the arrow; it's the Indian," Doyle quipped. He points to Rockies slugger Troy Tulowitzki, who was hitting .340 before a hip injury ended his season in July. "He's such a professional hitter, he might hit with a 2 by 4." Coincidentally, Tulowitzki is a Tucci client.
While some companies pay players to endorse their bats, Tucci doesn't. Anyone can buy a pro-style bat on his website or at some sporting goods retailers for about $110, though major leaguers get volume discounts. "There are a dozen bats in an order, and a player typically goes through seven to 10 dozen bats a year," he reported. "That said, most players will use between two and four different brands. Because baseball is such a superstitious sport, if you go into a batting slump, to change the feeling, even if just psychologically, you're going to switch bats. You get a couple of hits, and that becomes your favorite bat for the next couple of weeks—or until the next slump."
Tucci Lumber will produce up to 20,000 bats this year, a pittance compared to the nearly 1.8 million Louisville Sluggers made annually, but he's undeterred in battling the big boys. Tucci's initial marketing strategy was to convince major leaguers to swing his bats, then work his way down to the minors and other amateur leagues, where there's the greatest growth potential. He's introduced a line of batting gloves last year and has "a couple of other irons in the works" to expand the business.
Tucci's marketing budget is minuscule compared to his biggest competitors', so traveling to ball parks to convince more players to use his bats is his basic sales strategy. "We make a high-quality product and then try to get the word out about the brand they're seeing other players use," Tucci said. "We're still considered a new product, so it has to be better.
"My ultimate goal is to be a baseball company, not just a bat company," he said. And although the path has been circuitous, Tucci is where he's always wanted to be. "My lifelong dream of getting to the big leagues has been fulfilled; I just took a different route."