The man loves his lathe. It's a great green metal machine, a Torreda PA-400 E made in Barcelona, Spain. Mike Randolph watches, wonder-filled...
EASTON, Md. — The man loves his lathe.
It’s a great green metal machine, a Torreda PA-400 E made in Barcelona, Spain. Mike Randolph watches, wonder-filled, as a 7-pound block of wood spins between the drive point and tail stock and, as if by miracle, a 32-ounce version of loveliness appears: a baseball bat.
For the past several years, Randolph has been turning out these beauties from his little shop in Talbot County, Md.
Some consider him a bat master. “The quality of his bats is superior to every other I’ve ever used,” says Richard Huber of the National Adult Baseball Association. The group buys about 200 of Randolph’s signature Chesapeake Thunder wooden bats a year.
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The funny thing is, Randolph never played the sport much, except for a street game here and there. But he’s sort of The Natural when it comes to wood. He’s an artist with ash, a Michelangelo with maple. So when he began making bats, he shared a few with some players and before he knew it other players were placing orders. Minor leaguers swung his black models and major leaguers used his two-tones and life was good and business buzzed and the flow of the game was going Randolph’s way.
His company, Talbot Turnings, is a one-room workshop on the old family property. It smells wood-chip crisp and machine-oil acrid. Over the years, he says, “I’ve made just about everything.”
Photos on the wall attest to skills: a gun cabinet, a bookcase, a roll-top desk that sold for $3,500. He has built with cherry, maple, oak.
“People used to want real high-quality furniture,” he says. “Seems like they started veering toward Wal-Mart.”
An idea is born
One day near the end of the past century, he was walking through his kitchen and saw a baseball bat lying on the counter. His daughter, Arianne, had won it as student of the month. Randolph’s mind started turning.
So did his lathe. “It looked pretty simple,” he says. “Making the bat was the easy part.”
Making the stamp for the logo was hard. “The first die I commissioned came back backwards,” he says. He lost $1,600 on the deal.
He visited three post offices and several mail-it-yourself stores, testing the scales in every one to make sure his own small set of scales was accurate. He didn’t even know he was following in the footsteps of the greatest-ever batter, Ted Williams, who weighed his bats at the post office.
“It took me about a year to get everything in order,” Randolph says. But he began production, taking the block of wood, shaving it down for two minutes or so, sanding it, trimming the ends, dipping it in lacquer, branding it with his logo or slapping a decal on it.
He talked to some guys who played baseball. They started sending him business. “I got my daughter to put me up a Web page,” he says. It is www.talboturnings.com.
In August 2000, Randolph felt ready for the Big Show. He wrote a letter to Major League Baseball (MLB) requesting information on how to get a bat approved for big-league play. A couple of months later, a big-league exec responded.
The rules were simple: An official MLB bat had to be made of one piece of wood and could not be longer than 42 inches or have a diameter of more than 2 ¾ inches. The bat could be cupped at the end, up to 1 inch deep. You could put anything you wanted on the bat’s handle to improve the grip. The markings on the bat had to fall in certain spots. Colors had to be approved.
Over the next year, Randolph sent two batches of bats to the MLB rules committee. He received a letter in January 2002 saying that his sample bat had been approved.
He sold a dozen bats to Larry Bigbie, then of the Baltimore Orioles, he says. Other major and minor leaguers bought some bats.
Virgil Chevalier, formerly of the Boston Red Sox, used a Chesapeake Thunder when he played for Trenton, N.J. “The hard maple bats,” he wrote Randolph, “are by far the best performing bats that I have used.”
All was clover. Randolph planned to expand operations, hire others, run a year-round, bat-making empire. The dream lasted, oh, about a year.
In the spring of 2002, Sports Illustrated published a story about the explosion of new bats, among them the Chesapeake Thunder. “I told my wife, ‘This may be good or bad,’ ” Randolph says. He just had a feeling.
The rules change
Sure enough, in December, another MLB letter, “about a half-inch thick,” showed up in the mailbox, Randolph says. The rules of engagement had changed. All approved bat suppliers were asked to pay $10,000 a year for administrative costs and show proof of $10 million of liability insurance. The cost of doing business, Randolph says, proved too great.
That ended Randolph’s major-league career.
Since then, MLB has lowered its financial requirements to a $5,000 administrative fee and a $5 million liability policy.
Pat Courtney, a spokesman for MLB, says that his organization changed the rules for the 2003 season because it was concerned about liability issues and about the intentions of some bat makers.
“A lot of people who were having their bats approved were taking that approval and using it for other reasons,” he says.
And MLB justifies the administrative fee as a good-faith demonstration that a company is committed to making bats for major-league players.
The restrictions were not put into place to protect larger companies — such as Louisville Slugger, Rawlings and Wilson — from competition, Courtney says. Some 30 bat makers provide bats to the bigs, he says.
Randolph, however, has decided to leave the major leagues to the major manufacturers. Now he mostly makes bats for adult baseball leagues and some colleges.
He stays busy during the warm months. But since he can’t make bats for the pros anymore, he doesn’t see his bat business growing too much anytime soon.
He’s looking for something to do the rest of the year. He points to a slim pair of wooden things on his work table.
He’s thinking of getting into drumsticks.