Shore bat maker hopes for a major-league hit

Baseball: With his custom maple versions, a Talbot County man has a loyal following among minor-league players. But he wants a shot at `the bigs.'

July 22, 2002|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

EASTON - Virgil Chevalier is thinking that this season he's doing a pretty good impersonation of Roy Hobbs.

Like the fictional hero who swung his homemade "Wonderboy" all the way to the big time in The Natural, Chevalier is giving much of the credit for his success to a batch of baseball bats - in this case turned out by an Eastern Shore furniture maker who never played in more than a few neighborhood sandlot games.

After bouncing around baseball's minor leagues for seven years, Chevalier, a 28-year-old catcher and outfielder for the Class AA Binghamton, N.Y., Mets, says his first week at the plate with the bats made him look something like the film's mythical ballplayer.

"I'm hitting .270, .280, and I start using the bats," Chevalier recalls. "I hit .360, had two homers and 16 RBI. I was Eastern League player of the week. I'm telling you, the ball just jumps off these bats."

Thanks to a spiffy Web site and word-of-mouth buzz generated by players such as Chevalier, bats bearing the Chesapeake Thunder trademark are flying out of Mike Randolph's rural Talbot County workshop as fast as the 49-year-old Tennessee native can make them.

A woodworker since his high school days, Randolph has spent most of his life making furniture - roll-top desks, dining room tables, corner cupboards and custom kitchen cabinets. His shop is in a big metal building on the farm where his wife, Cindy, grew up.

He says it seems like ages since one of his four daughters came home from school with a reward for good grades from one of her teachers - a shattered bat used by a player for the Delmarva Shorebirds, one of the Orioles' Class A affiliates.

"People had asked me about making bats off and on, and I got to looking at this broken bat," Randolph says. "It started me to thinking. At the time, I didn't figure it would be much to it."

What began as a lark has turned into 16-hour workdays, including many weekends, as Randolph converts 37-inch maple "blanks" supplied by two lumber companies in northern Pennsylvania into custom-made cherry-colored, black or two-toned bats.

He shapes the bats on a 2-ton commercial lathe. After staining and the application of multiple layers of lacquer, the finished products are stamped with a trademark from a machine that also can personalize them with a player's name. Randolph mails them overnight to customers who order over the Internet and says he is making 100 or more bats a week.

"I guess it has been five years all together, setting up the shop, the Internet and getting MLB approval," Randolph says. "I've got guys who want a bat 1/32nd shorter or a quarter-ounce lighter or heavier. They all want a bat with a big thick head and a skinny handle. It's more complicated than it looks."

After two years of trying, Chesapeake Thunder was certified by Major League Baseball, a coveted nod of approval that allows professional players to use the bats.

If timing is everything, Randolph says his has been something of a mixed blessing.

He seems to have landed on the front end of a trend among baseball players, who are switching from traditional bats made from ash to maple. Many believe they are more durable and allow players to drive the ball farther.

But Randolph also finds himself among a growing number of bat makers competing for the attention of big-league ballplayers. Those players are shielded from sales pitches from small-time bat makers by multimillion-dollar salaries and contracts for bats made by longtime manufacturers such as Louisville Slugger.

Among the professionals, Randolph has developed a following of minor-leaguers who swear his bats are more durable than those made from ash. Converts insist the Chesapeake Thunder bats are better than those provided by minor-league teams under contract with large manufacturers.

"I was drafted by the [Pittsburgh] Pirates in '96, and I can tell you I've been through a lot of bats since then," says Garrett Larkin, a 27-year-old third baseman for the Adirondack Lumberjacks, a team in Glens Falls, N.Y., in the independent Northern League. "I found Chesapeake Thunder one day on the Internet, and it's great dealing with Mike. He knows the lingo, and I talked to him for weeks about what I needed in a bat."

Although he has mailed or hand-delivered bats to a handful of major-league players, none has used one in a game, Randolph says. A neighbor watching a game on TV swears he saw a Chicago Cubs player using one of the bats. Randolph mailed some of his bats to Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa a while back but never got a response.

The hope, Randolph says, is that some of his minor-league customers will soon make it to the big leagues and take Chesapeake Thunder bats with them.

Meanwhile, amateurs who've tried the bats also swear by them, says Richard Huber, a Washington lawyer who is a player and president of the District of Columbia chapter of the National Adult Baseball Association. The chapter banned metal bats a few years ago.

The ball flies off metal bats so quickly, pitchers have too little time to protect themselves from balls hit up the middle, says Huber. "It's also kind of a macho thing. Anybody can hit with metal; but when you hit with wood, you're a real hitter. There's just something about the way a ball comes off a maple bat."

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