He crafts the tools of hitting
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Sunday, Aug. 08, 2010

He crafts the tools of hitting

Baseball coach earns extra income turning wooden bats for pros, college players.

Derek Shoe's name may never appear in any professional baseball annals, but some minor league players around the country are crediting him with some of their hits.

Five years ago, Shoe, Concord High's baseball coach and a former assistant at Pfeiffer University, bought a lathe online and made his first wooden baseball bat.

His pursuit of a little extra income quickly turned into his East Coast Bat Co. Today, he sells 500 to 600 bats a year, he said, to collegiate and minor league players.

'I had no clue'

A 1999 graduate of Mount Pleasant High, Shoe played for a year at Methodist University. After graduating from UNCCharlotte, he joined Pfeiffer's staff in 2004 and coached there through 2007.

In 2005, Shoe said, he was looking for a way to supplement his income. He thought about working as a local sales representative for one of the nationally known sporting goods companies.

Then he began thinking about getting to the core of the baseball bat business. Shoe admitted he had no previous woodworking experience. But he had a love of baseball, some ambition and a personal computer.

He used the internet to research how bats are made. Shoe watched videos on bat making on YouTube and ordered his first basic lathe on eBay for $250.

"When I started I had no clue how it was going to take off," Shoe said. "I took out a business name, but I didn't have a business plan."

It took him two hours to make his first bat, which he now displays in his Stanfield home, Shoe said. He had to tame the lathe so the wood wouldn't jump off the machine. After three weeks, the lathe's tailstock, which supports the wood, broke.

Trial and error

With the basic skills mastered, Shoe quickly upgraded to a bigger, more expensive machine that could cut the bat down and sand it more easily. Soon he could turn out an unfinished bat in about 15 minutes.

"I wasted a lot of wood trying to figure out the best way to get it cut," Shoe said. "I made a mess of a lot of wood. It was trial and error."

Some of the Pfeiffer's players liked the feel of the Shoe's bats. With the positive feedback, Shoe started soliciting a couple of the regional college wooden bat leagues that play in the summer.

His main customers are the Lake Norman Copperheads, which he coaches, and the Spartanburg Eagles, both of the Southern Collegiate Baseball League.

"(The bat) feels good in your hand," said one collegiate player who is prohibited by NCAA rules from endorsing a product. "It's a well-balanced bat.

"I used some of the (bigger name) brands. I thought the bat was up to those qualities, with how the ball came off the bat," the player said. The big thing for me is how it feels in my hands, and it feels really good."

Robert Scott, the Copperheads' assistant general manager, said, "If a kid goes out and buys a Louisville Slugger or Easton bat ... he's not going to get the same grain of wood as the pros do.

"But Derek is able to get good-quality wood, so it's a better bat than what you get off the shelf at a sporting good store."

With marketing done mainly by word of mouth, demand for Shoe's bats grew. During the months before baseball season through the end of the summer, Shoe said, he spends about 20 hours a week churning out bats.

From blanks to bats

The process starts as Shoe orders pallets of 37-by-3-inch maple wood (and a little ash) billets (bat blanks) from New York. After cutting and sanding the wood to the consumer's desired length, he stamps it with the company logo, personalizes it (if the consumer wishes) and lacquers it.

Shoe said he can turn out a finished product in two to seven days. An East Coast Bat Co. bat goes for about $55.

He does the work in a small building behind his father's Mount Pleasant home. His father sometimes helps with lacquering, making him the company's only other worker.

Besides his college customers, Shoe said, about 40 minor-leaguers place orders with him. The most exposure an East Coast bat ever got was when Wake Forest graduate Jamie D'Antona won the Triple A Home Run Derby in 2008 using Shoe's I13 model.

"I'm at a point right now where I can do as much as I can with the machinery I have," he said. "The next level of machinery would cost $25,000. It's all automated and can turn a bat in two minutes."

Maybe then, baseball will have its very own "Shoe-yville Sluggers."

Joe Habina is a freelance writer.

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