VALPARAISO | Tampa Bay Rays catcher Jose Lobaton swung a bat made in Valparaiso when he belted a walk-off homer out of Tropicana Field in the bottom of the ninth Monday.
The game-winning home run ultimately bought the Rays only a night's reprieve before they fell to the Red Sox in the American League Division Series, but it was one of the more dramatic moments in the Major League Baseball playoffs this fall.
This past season, Lobaton mainly used bats that were carved and lacquered in Porter County by the Hoosier Bat Co., one of the world's largest manufacturers of regulation-quality wooden baseball bats. Two other stars who are still in the playoffs — Tigers slugger Prince Fielder and Dodgers third baseman Juan Uribe — also hit with Hoosier Bat lumber, though not exclusively.
Angels outfielder Josh Hamilton and Nationals phenom Bryce Harper also once used the Indiana-made bats but have since switched to rival brands such as Louisville Slugger and the increasingly popular Marucci.
Despite increased competition from Marucci Sports and other bat manufacturers, business is booming at the Valparaiso-based company, which employs five workers and cranks out 35,000 bats per year. Sales have risen about 15 to 20 percent each year over the past five years, said Debbie Cook, who owns the company along with her husband, Dave Cook, a former scout for the New York Yankees.
Growth has been driven mainly by increased sales to high school, college, minor league, legion and even softball teams. High school and college players have increasingly been abandoning the pricey aluminum bats in favor of wood.
"Who would want to use a bat that's made all from recycled Mountain Dew cans?" Dave Cook joked.
Baseball legends such as Frank Thomas, Don Mattingly and Sandy Alomar Jr. all once swore by bats crafted by the Hoosier Bat Co. The Big Hurt crushed his 500th homer with a Valparaiso-made stick. A sculptor cast a Hoosier Bat Co. bat while designing Thomas' statue at U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago, and is using the same mold for a new sculpture of the slugger outside his planned restaurant in Berwyn, Ill.
Hitters on as many as 30 major league teams, both in the U.S. and abroad, once used Hoosier Bat Co. wood. But the number of MLB players using the Valparaiso-made bats crafted from ash or birch has dropped off over the last two years, since the league banned the company's signature three stripes as an unfair marketing advantage, Cook said.
All the company's bats used to have three consecutive black rings near the handle, making it obvious when someone was using one of them. Since the league banned the stripes, some ballplayers have since assumed the bat manufacturer went out of business and expressed surprise after learning it is still around.
Maple bats also have gained in popularity in recent years because stars such as Albert Pujols use them and there is a perception they give the hitter more power. White Sox players, for instance, once mainly used ash or birch bats made by the Hoosier Bat Co., but switched wholesale because slugger Paul Konerko swears by maple.
Cook does not like maple because it shatters easily, is pricier than other woods and will start to peel over time. Hoosier Bat Co. mainly makes ash and birch bats. Its best-selling product — the Woodforce 2000 — combines ash in the handle, hickory in the sweet spot and maple on the barrel end.
Overall sales have been robust. The Hoosier Bat Co. provides bats to more than 80 minor league teams across the country, including the Gary SouthShore RailCats, the South Bend Silver Hawks and the Nashville Sounds. The company exclusively furnished bats to recently retired RailCats star Adam Klein, who was named most valuable player in the American Association championship series.
Competition has increased exponentially since Dave Cook founded Hoosier Bat Co. in 1991, shortly after he finished a brief stint with Louisville Slugger.
Only six companies made bats back then.
Now 32 companies are licensed to make bats for Major League Baseball, and more than 185 are operating total. The number of bat manufacturers has shot up in recent years because of former players looking to start businesses, and lawyers and doctors who want to bankroll exciting ventures that will give them bragging rights.
"Everyone who gets into the bat business has a ego," Cook said. "You want to be able to sit with your friends at a restaurant and say that Frank Thomas used this bat, and Sammy Sosa used that bat."
Even with more competition, opportunity still abounds because wooden bats have been gaining favor among high school and college players, Cook said. Aluminum bats tend to be much more costly than wood. They are becoming perceived as less safe because of the metal's trampoline effect that propels the ball at greater velocities. High school and college federations also mandate aluminum bats must weight 30 ounces, which may be too heavy for slighter players or too light for heavier hitters. No such weight restrictions apply to wooden bats, which are becoming more popular with student ballplayers.
"In Ohio alone, you have 680 high schools," Cook said. "You have 20 players to a team, and each one might buy 12 bats each. That's a lot of sticks."
The company also has branched out into other areas, including furniture making. Workers at the 6,000-square-foot facility craft sports-themed chairs, couches and ottomans.
The chairs are made with team jerseys, and the legs are often made with bats or hockey sticks. Since last year's Stanley Cup victory, Blackhawks-themed furniture has been selling almost as fast as the craftsmen can carve it. Hoosier Bat Co. has accommodated special requests for Red Sox seats and is looking to supply its furniture to sports bars and restaurants, but is in no rush to expand.
“If you branch out too much, the branches are going to break in the first storm," Cook said.