By Andrew Houghton
For every Chandler or Marucci with a storybook rise to the top of the bat-making game, there are dozens of small manufacturers all across the country fighting to do the same. Beltway Bats in Arlington, Virginia is one of these fledgling companies, grinding away at the lathe, trying to make a name for themselves in a crowded and ambiguous industry. After all, if you removed the logos from the bats and swung each, who’s to say you wouldn’t fall in love with a bat you’ve never heard of? (Editor’s Note: We have to do that.)
What Pros Wear sat down with Beltway Bats founder Joe Devine to get the lowdown on breaking into the bat industry, the future plans for his company, and doing business in the Washington, DC area.
WPW: How did you start out with the whole idea of making bats?
JD: If you want to take it back to the very beginning, it started out when I was growing up in South Jersey. There was a batting cage down near Medford Lakes where I grew up. It was an indoor batting cage that I went to every Sunday with my uncle or my father. One day I went in there and noticed they had a lathe that was set up in what used to be an executive office, and I was instantly captivated by the whole handcrafting lathe concept. After I was done playing college ball, it wasn’t easy to give up the game that has given so much to me throughout the years. So I picked up an industrial size machine, set up a workshop as a home-based business, and that’s really where it all got started. Throughout my years playing, I really couldn’t find what I wanted in a quality bat at the big box chain stores. Figuring you have to go online to get a custom bat anyway, it made sense I could initially rely solely on e-commerce and local team sales as a suitable way to get Beltway Bats off the ground and it’s proven to work well so far.
WPW: How long have you been doing this?
JD: Starting when I came out of college in 2009, this has been a continuous work in progress. I finalized the licensing as an LLC here in Arlington officially in late March of this year, so we’re still very new to the wood bat industry. I’m actually the sole proprietor right now, and would be looking to hire under the terms of the licensing I have now, but right now I’m a one man show. Right now I handle everything from website development to gear and turning the handcrafted Original Series Beltway Bats. At the moment, I think the primary focus is going to be our grassroots effort out to the local wood bat organizations.
WPW: Has that been difficult for you so far?
JD: The only difficult thing I would say has been the web presence, or lack thereof of some wood bat leagues. For most industries you can easily do a quick search online to find organizations, websites, and contact information, however I’ve found many of the local wood bat leagues are very much word of mouth. We are clearly going to work on establishing a presence in the DC area. For example, if you’re looking for a wood bat league in Washington DC, really all you’re going to find with a solid web presence is the Cal Ripken League (a collegiate summer wood-bat league). After speaking with them, I’m aware they have a two year deal with another manufacturer, and we plan to pick up conversations toward the end of that contract. They’ve expressed interest because it is a DC-based company as well, so I’m hopeful to work with them and several other leagues in the near future. Beyond that, really the most difficult part has been finding the contacts for the competitive leagues I know exist.
WPW: When it comes to your bats, how are you doing that?
JD: At the moment, I personally handcraft our Original Series Beltway Bats. We pair that handcrafted process with a partnership we’ve worked out with another manufacturing facility to utilize the speed and accuracy of a copy lathe. This process is solely utilized to keep pace with quantities that teams are looking to order. Those are cut by copy lathe, to the same specifications as our hand-cut bats. That said, I still don’t think you can overlook the hand-made aspect of it, so right now I have a blend of the manufacturing chain to keep up with the team demand, and I’m still adamant about having the hand-turned, custom models in stock. The Beltway Bat Company website will continue to have both options available. Right now I have the Signature Series, which I’ve dubbed as the team order option. These bats can be fully customized, and they’re the ones right now I’m working out through the mentioned partnership. Then the other option is our Original Series Bats, and those are the ones that are sourced locally, and hand-cut here in our workshop. So it’s really the hybrid between the two, and we’re really the only company out there I know of that does both — mass-producing quality custom bats as well as hand-cutting them.
WPW: What kind of feedback have you been getting from players?
JD: The feedback has been fantastic so far. I have bats currently in the Blue-Gray League, the DC Wood-Bat League, Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, and at my alma mater, Catholic University. They’re really starting to take off and disperse their way through the area. Overall, it’s been fantastic, and truly a labor of love for me as a lifelong baseball guy. People really love the way they swing, the way they sound, the way they feel, and there’s something about confidence in baseball that you can’t really overlook. Everyone’s going to say that the bat you pick up off the rack is one of a kind, but to me walking up to the plate with something that’s truly hand-crafted, one of a kind, custom-cut for you, it brings another dimension to the game. Beltway Bats takes great pride in providing an amplified level of confidence that comes when you pick up our hand turned lumber, and it never hurts to cater to inherently superstitious ball players.
WPW: Where do you go from here? You talked about expanding, but what’s your ultimate goal for Beltway Bats?
JD: I’m looking to bring a few more employees on board in the somewhat immediate future, and hope to have a full-fledged factory in the area. That will be the first step to generating the quantity we need here in the DC area, and also to ramp up our Original Series. Right now I’m handling everything from business receipts, to purchasing quality raw materials. With an actual physical presence here we can provide people an opportunity to walk in and see what we’re all about. At the moment, it’s just a matter of finding the right space to do it, since real estate in the DC area can be a bit pricier than most. With that being said though I still think the DC area is a great location for something like this – it’s more of a baseball geared town than people give it credit for, and with all the landmarks and monuments around here I think it would be a fitting addition to such an influential city. The ultimate long term goal, of course, would be to get Beltway Bats into the professional game and eventually up into the majors, but it’s very difficult to do that right out of the gate. For a sole proprietor of a relatively newer organization, there are some hefty fees to supply bats in the bigs, and for that reason that is our longer term goal. As for right now, Beltway Bats will be targeting high school, college and minor league guys, with the thought process that those players will carry the bat with them as their careers advance. I think that is a more effective approach as opposed to trying to break into the major leagues right away.
WPW: A lot of people are popping up making bats, what do you think really sets you apart from everyone else?
JD: You will hear a slew of different reasons if you read on the Internet, if you do research with this company, that company; they’re talking slope of grain, they’re talking location of the harvested wood, they’re talking kiln-drying but at the end of the day, I know what a good piece of wood is and I’ve been a baseball guy my entire life. Beltway Bat Company is not going to put something out there that a player’s not going to want. I can’t say I’ve been in furniture making for years, I can’t say I’ve been in front of a lathe my entire life, but what I can say is I know what works on the diamond. I’m getting reliable feedback from customers about how much players have liked their Beltway Bats, how the bats hit and how they’ve held up, and it’s been overwhelmingly positive and we are extremely excited about what the future holds.
WPW: What does the future hold for Beltway?
JD: Beltway Bats may be in the early stages of existence, in a game heavily focused on longstanding traditions, but we are dedicated to providing top caliber wood bats for the serious ball player. Many of the now mainstream bat suppliers had similar starting points, and Beltway Bat Company is proud to be the pioneer of an age old tradition as the first bat manufacturer here in the DC area.
Be sure to keep an eye out for some more players “Swinging Monumentally” very soon.