Bat made with Soviet metal hits a home run Ashurst Technology in Baltimore County generates fast sales

February 19, 1997|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

With a major contribution from a Baltimore County technology company, the nation's largest producer of aluminum baseball bats is coming out with a new, lighter and stronger model based on a once "top secret" metal used in former Soviet Union fighter planes such as the MiG 29.

Ashurst Technology Ltd. has licensed California-based Easton Sports Inc. to manufacture and market baseball and softball bats made from Ashurst's proprietary aluminum-scandium alloys.

Ashurst was founded in 1991 with the goal of refining technologies developed in the former Soviet Union, turning them into products and bringing them to the world market.

It holds a minority interest in the giant Zhovti Vody iron ore and uranium mine outside of Kiev in Ukraine.

The mine, with more than 200 miles of tunnels, is also the world's primary source of scandium, a rare metal known for its toughness. Adding just traces of scandium to aluminum increases the strength, durability, and fatigue resistance of the light metal.

The new Easton bats mark the "first commercial use of aluminum-scandium structural alloys outside the former Soviet Union," said Benton Wilcoxon, Ashurst chairman and chief executive.

Relay-based Ashurst will sell Easton the raw material for the bats, and will collect a royalty payment for each one sold, said Stephen Meldrum, Ashurst's vice president of marketing.

The agreement with Easton represents "a multimillion-dollar deal" for Ashurst, said Meldrum, and could open the door for the use of aluminum-scandium in other sports gear, such as ski equipment and bicycles.

Ashurst is hoping it will be involved in revolutionizing the baseball and softball bat industry the way that the late Baltimore engineer Howard Head revolutionized the ski and tennis industries with his designs for metal skis and oversized tennis rackets.

Easton introduced its new bats to retailers at the Sports Super Show in Atlanta over the weekend.

"We sold every one that was available in 48 hours," said Michael Zlaket, Easton's vice president of baseball/softball. "We sold thousand and thousands.

"It's is our top-of-the-line bat," Zlaket said of the aluminum-scandium model. "It's made of the strongest materials and will provide the best performance, bar none."

He said the market for the new bats "could be well into seven figures."

Easton, based in Van Nuys, Calif., controls about 60 percent of the $120 million a year North American market in wholesale aluminum bats, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturing Association.

Zlaket makes no promises that the aluminum-scandium bat will extend softball careers or turn all Little Leaguers into .700 hitters, but he insists it "will set new standards for performance."

Bats introduced at the sports show were for high school and college baseball and for slow-pitch softball.

Later this year, the company is scheduled to introduce models for Little League baseball and fast-pitch softball. The bats are expected in stores in May.

Any added power or boost in batting averages will come at a price. Easton's Redline C-Core bats will retail for approximately $249 each.

"Two hundred and fifty dollars, I can't imagine anyone paying that much for a bat," said Michael Legg, an analyst who follows the sporting goods industry for Alex. Brown & Sons Inc. and says he has played baseball all his life. "But people do."

Legg said he has seen bats advertised for $250 before, but they are usually at specialty sport shops.

Top of the line bats at places like The Sports Authority or Dick's Clothing and Sporting Goods are already in the $200 range, he said.

Pub Date: 2/19/97

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