Minnesota Tested, Major League Approved
"I remember walking up to Jacque Jones like an idiot," recalls Jim Anderson laughing. "And I handed him like six bats and said, 'Here, try these.' I had no idea what he swung. What length. What weight. If he was even open to trying new bats. If he liked maple. If he liked ash. I had no idea."
Jim Anderson and his partner Paul Johnson were armed only with a duffle bag full of bats, golf shirts with their company logo, and the unwavering belief that their lumber could be the truest and best in baseball. Apart from that, they were fans. And for Anderson, an amateur baseball player who grew up in North Dakota and never dreamed he'd get past the bleachers at a pro game, standing in the midst of a crowded Twins locker room on the first day of spring training in 2004 was the culmination of a long, odd journey.
For a moment, it even felt comfortable. That is, until this:
"So we settled in and just started talking to people about bats," says Anderson. "And I think I was talking to Michael Cuddyer when I heard this voice-Ron Gardenhire-from the other side of the clubhouse launching into a [pre-season speech]. And Paul and I looked at each other. I mean, we're not supposed to be in the clubhouse at this point. It's a closed-door meeting. It's the first meeting they're going to have to start the season. It was like, ‘How did we get in here, and how did we not get ushered out?' So Gardy's talking and [eventually introduces Tom Kelly]. Well, Tom Kelly's standing right next to me and he puts his arm around my shoulder as Gardy's talking to him and squeezes me, and I'm thinking, ‘Where am I right now? This is crazy."
And that's when Anderson knew he'd finally made it in baseball. Sort of.
Jim Anderson is the vice president of Brooten, Minn.-based MaxBat, one of the hottest new wood bat manufacturers in Major League Baseball. Among the list who use, or have used, MaxBats are Jimmy Rollins, Albert Pujols, Chase Utley, Brian Roberts, Gary Sheffield and Jason Kubel.
However, this story begins with a baby named Max.
In January of 2001, Anderson was a sales rep expecting his first child and playing town ball just for kicks. While visiting a pal in Seattle, the pair decided to try spinning a couple of bats with his friend's lathe. The idea was that Jim would have a nice object of his own creation to put his baby's birth stats on for display in his office. However, upon his return to the Twin Cities, he realized that having just one trophy bat wasn't going to be enough, as he actually wanted to be able use one.
So, when his child was born-Max-Jim named that original bat MaxBat and even designed a logo, which is still in use today.
"The logo made the bat come to life," says Anderson. "It wasn't just a piece of wood anymore. It was a product. Something you'd see in a game."
Inspired by the logo and his desire to actually be able to try a bat of his own creation, Anderson bought a cheap lathe and began spinning bats in his basement. It was meant purely to be a relaxing hobby.
Something interesting began happening, however. Every time Jim brought one of his MaxBats to the ballpark, teammates would take notice and express interest in getting their own MaxBat. Jim gladly obliged by spinning bats one-at-a-time-between one and two hours per-in his basement.
And that's most likely how the MaxBat story would have stayed had it not been for the global stroke of misfortune that happened shortly thereafter.
"When [September 11] hit I was working for a new company as a sales rep for Minnesota, and they went out of business shortly afterwards, and so I was without a job. A new dad. A new perspective on life," recalls Anderson of the turning point. "So it was like, ‘Well, I gotta do something with my life.' I always had ideas to do stuff growing up, but always thought, ‘Well, someone else already invented that.' Or, ‘If it was a good idea, someone else is already doing it by now.'"
For whatever reason, the moment inspired Anderson to turn his previous thinking on its ear. One day while installing a wood floor in his house, he got to pondering bats, and for some reason, no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't shake the feeling that that's what he needed to be doing.
"I was trying to talk myself out of it. Like, ‘This is just stupid. You gotta do something to earn a living,'" says Anderson. "But then I kept saying, ‘Why can't I make a living doing this; there's no reason why I can't.'"
And, even though there were plenty of logical reasons why he couldn't (lack of MLB approval, no prior manufacturing experience, no prior bouts of entrepreneurism, no tangible MLB contacts, not to mention Rawlings, Louisville Slugger and Easton) and nothing concrete to indicate he could, Jim Anderson decided to push forward with bats.
Anderson's bat making career began passively and with only meager expectations.
"I really had no aspirations of getting MLB approval, but I thought that I might get a cool letter on MLB letterhead that I could frame and put on the wall so that I could say, ‘This is when I at least tried,'" says Anderson of his first real effort. "So I made some bats, sent them out, and I got a letter back in early 2002 that said, ‘Congratulations, we're pleased to announce that your bats are acceptable for professional play for the 2002 season.'"
Just like that, it was as if Anderson was offered a pass to the high-stakes table, but hadn't yet figured out how to play without wild cards.
"It was unbelievable," says Anderson. "But there was no way I could even attempt to start making bats for Major League players. I had to find a company that could help me make the bats. Make ‘em better. Make ‘em faster. Make ‘em more consistent. Help me market them. My mind was just going 100 miles-per-hour. So I started looking for companies that could help me."
Initially, because the Twin Cities is where he lived, Anderson looked for manufacturers around town, but his search kept leading him back to Glacial Wood Products Inc., a wood-turning company two hours northwest of the cities, in Brooten, Minn. Although he initially put off contacting Glacial, with nowhere else to turn, Anderson finally called company president Dick Johnson.
"I talked to him, told him who I was, what I was doing, but he told me that they were already making bats for some guys out in California," says Anderson with a hint of semi-disbelief.
So Anderson told Johnson to hold on to his number just in case and, for lack of any other options, put the MaxBat plans on the shelf and took a job selling ad space for the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
ADVANCING TO THIRD
"One day I'm eating lunch in a Taco Bell parking lot in Hastings, and my wife calls me and tells me that I've got to call Dick Johnson from Glacial Wood Products," recalls Anderson. "So I called him right away. And he said he'd like to have a meeting with me."
Johnson's news was that the California company had bailed and that, in turn, Glacial Wood was open to taking new bat companies on a vendor/client capacity.
"After a couple of years [the California company] basically screwed us and pulled out, and in that vacuum we were able to take on other bat companies-six or seven others-and one of those companies was MaxBat," says Johnson of the situation.
"I went out and sold bats, and then I would give them my orders and they would produce them to the specs that were needed," says Anderson, who was still doing MaxBat in his spare time. "It was a good relationship."
But, as Johnson points out, after a while it became apparent that vendor/client wasn't the best way for either party to be slaying the giants of the bat business.
"We started making bats for him and a half dozen companies and he, like them, was a growing company. I started thinking, ‘Well, why are we working so hard for these other companies when we're the ones actually building the bats,'" says Johnson.
Accordingly, Johnson began to sift through the half dozen companies who were producing bats at Glacial and, although Jim wasn't the only manufacturer he spoke to about the idea, agreed to the terms of a deal whereby Glacial Wood Products Inc. would acquire MaxBat and incorporate them as a division. The agreement owed largely to the fact that Dick Johnson and his son Paul liked Anderson on a personal level and believed that he, unlike the other bat makers previously working out of Glacial, had a level of determination that could propel MaxBat forward.
For Anderson it was simply about making the decision he figured would be best for the success of MaxBat. And, since he knew Glacial was an established business with a solid financial foundation-even calling themselves one of the nation's top custom wood turners-he was willing to give up full control.
"There was just a lot of things that happened really fast, and I was sort of apprehensive about doing it-about entering into an agreement with a company and giving up some control," says Anderson. "But I thought, ‘Well, Dick is really successful with his business, and I don't need to be called "president of MaxBat," it's just a title.'''
For the Johnsons it was merely the right thing to do.
"He was willing to take our approach on the business end of it, and take direction," says Paul Johnson. "We just knew because of our prior experiences with some of these companies, if we were going to get heavy into bats, we were going to need to control the company."
By 2004 MaxBat was incorporated and producing bats in what was Glacial's original Brooten facility-Glacial had constructed a new facility for the rest of its turning business down the street. The way it was arranged, Dick Johnson-who says he mainly just tries to stay out of the way-was, in addition to being president of Glacial, president of MaxBat, while his son Paul was vice president in charge of technology, and Anderson was vice president and director of sales.
SAFE AT HOME
From a business standpoint things were finally real for MaxBat, but that doesn't mean they were easy. For the first part of 2004, Anderson was still working MaxBat part time while selling ads for the Pioneer Press. He even went to that first spring training-complete with cheap motels and a low-class rental car-using vacation days from work.
Even though their sales pitch had yet to fully materialize and Anderson was still only moonlighting as a MLB bat maker in the spring of 2004, they believed in their bats and the process by which they constructed them.
"I just got the feeling like, ‘We're really lucky to be standing in here,"' says Anderson articulating the truth of that first, awkward clubhouse experience. "We had no idea who we're going to approach or how to approach them. It was intimidating. But what was going through my mind was, ‘These guys need bats, and we make good bats.' We had to think, ‘We've got a product that we feel is the best, so they'd be foolish not to talk to us.'"
Before long, players also realized that ignoring Anderson and Johnson would be foolish.
Anderson, who'd played in amateur leagues against members of the Mauer clan, had, through said connections, managed to get bats into the hands of Joe Mauer, who in turn proliferated MaxBats throughout the Twins' minor league system. MaxBat also was adopted by some of the then-hottest young hitters in the game, the Baltimore Orioles's Brian Roberts chief among them.
"The year Brian Roberts started using our bats he put up career numbers," notes Anderson.
The MaxBat appeal is that not only do their maple bats have tremendous pop-there is, according to Anderson, no truth to the rumors about the danger of maple bats shattering more frequently than ash bats, by the way-but that they are also among the most highly customizable bats on the market. The customizability coupled with a lighting fast turnaround is tremendously appealing. "The thing I enjoy the most about it is, we're able to offer them really anything they want in a very short amount of time," says Paul Johnson.
So quick is the turnaround-due largely to the fact that MaxBat's system utilizes high-tech, CNC [computerized numerical control] lathes-that Anderson recalls the story of the first time Kenny Lofton ordered a MaxBat. He had just been acquired by the Los Angeles Dodgers, says Anderson, and his equipment hadn't arrived yet, so he needed his bats by the next day. Anderson was showing him some different models and Lofton told him he wanted a barrel from one bat on the handle from another. The order was relayed to MaxBat, and Lofton had his custom bats the next day.
Today, Anderson is long-since fulltime and, with a MaxBat roster that reads like a venerable who's-who of Major and Minor League Baseball, the company is becoming a bigger cog than Anderson or either Johnson could ever have imagined. However, they've become a vital cog in another way as well.
"One of the biggest advantages of this whole thing is that we were able to create a second company that kind of helped weather the recession. Glacial Wood saw some down turn in the last year and a half, and we were actually able to move a couple of employees over from Glacial to MaxBat," says Paul Johnson, of the unlikely recession buster of bat manufacturing. It was a recession buster not only for MaxBat, but for the small town in which it resides. "It's a source of pride. Between the two companies, we're the two biggest things going in Brooten."
And it looks like they will be for quite some time.