Written by Jason Gilmer | Photos by Anthony Harden
The 2018 baseball season is finally here, and meanwhile, the folks behind Fletcher-based Young Bat Company have been knocking a few out of the park themselves.
The swing frozen in time on the wall of the Young Bat Company is pure Barry Bonds. Left shoulder high in the air. The stitched uniform lettering of the words “San Francisco” splayed across a ripped chest. Eyes focused on a ball that has flown high into the air. Back foot up on the toe after he exploded his hips into the pitch. And the perfect back swing, with both hands near the right shoulder, showing off the 35-inch bat in his hands. There, stamped on the bat just below the sweet spot, is the logo for Young Bat Company, a bat manufacturer based in Brevard from 1993 to 2005.
The poster with this image, which also includes a close-up of Bonds’ face with his well-known cross earring, now hangs on a wall in a cinder block building in Fletcher. It’s a DIY space where the employees of the newly resurrected Young Bat Company can see the company’s past collide, almost as hard as Bonds can swing, with its future.
Mismatched tables and chairs are in the small front space where rows of wooden bats, some black, others painted and a few naturally colored, hang on the wall. A large industrial shelving unit stands on the far side with some of the company’s newer products—gifts for baseball enthusiasts such as mugs made from the barrels of bats, bat bottle openers, and shot glasses made from bat handles—displayed. There’s also a cabinet of logo-themed T-shirts, a drying room, and a laser for engraving on a bat’s barrel in the small space.
This is where the online company, which began in November, has set up its operation, mere feet from company founder Chris Young’s home. His son, Thomas Young, has his laptop set up near the entrance and he stands behind it as he reaches out to commissioners of adult leagues, high school coaches, and other potential customers. It’s also where he corresponds with customers on bat colors, weights, logos, and other custom wishes.
Nearby is the work space for business partner Cody Siniard, a self-taught graphic designer, bat painter, and musician. The muffled sound that permeates from a back door is where the lathe is situated. It’s there, among the dust and noise, that products which have collected thousands of social media “likes” are produced. This operation isn’t nearly as big as what it once was, but it is growing.
“A love for baseball and wood is something that’s in my blood. It’s part of who I am and part of what makes Young Bat Company so special,” says the younger Young, who goes by Tom. “My father created this company because of his passion for wood and his love for the game of baseball. Now I’m able to carry the torch with my best friend as we move into the future.”
For Chris Young, now considered Young Bat Company’s CEO, it has been nice to see his business resurrected by two youngsters who grew up around the company; his son, the company’s COO, and Siniard, the CFO, worked in the business back in its heyday. So far there are just five employees, including close friend Andrew Freeman, who is chief marketing officer, and John Ferguson, who oversees manufacturing.
While things have changed, many things remain the same. Large European Beech, White Ash and Hard Rock Maple logs are stacked on the property and a sawmill sits outside. Inside a second cinder block building are stacks of billets, the term for the 37-inch cylinder pieces of wood that are turned into bats, with weights written in black marker on each end. The process is exactly what Chris Young did for hundreds of major league players during his 12-year production run.
“I like taking a tree that nobody wants, or maybe they cut it for firewood or it got hit by lightning, and making something out of it,” Chris Young says. “There are very few companies who take the raw wood from the forest and turn it into a finished product. You cut it, dry it, mill it, and turn it. That’s a little more fun than someone who just buys wood and spins it. When you look at each piece and decide what you’re going to do with it, it’s more creative.”
Bringing Back The Family Business
It was on a Sunday afternoon last year that the plan for reopening the business began. Tom and Siniard were over at Chris’ house playing music when the elder Young mentioned that the two should buy a sawmill and cut the wood on his property. Maybe you could earn some extra money, he told them. Then he mentioned the possibility of making a baseball bat out of a nice piece of wood. That caught the younger guys’ attention.
“We’re entrepreneurs and were always thinking of ways to make more money,” Siniard says. “Before you know it, we were going to start the bat company again.”
Texting is commonplace to Tom Young’s life. When he began to pry information out of his father about how to run a bat company, he tried to be nonchalant about what he was after. He’d ask a question here or there and begin to text someone on his phone. Or so it appeared.
“I was typing everything he said,” Tom admits. Those notes became the crux of how he resurrected the family business. When the company first closed it was before Tom left for college, and for the previous four years he had been more focused on playing basketball than the goings-on of his father’s business.
Basketball was his favorite sport. He had the chance to start at shortstop as a high school freshman baseball player, but he averaged double digits that winter on the varsity basketball team and decided to focus his athletic energy on the hardwood and not the diamond. He thought the bat company would be there whenever he was ready.
“I had thought that I would [take over the business], but my mom was always focused on getting an education and the experience from college,” he says. “I wanted to take over the company, but I wasn’t naive enough to think at 18 years old I would know enough to do that. I’m one of those people who would like to jump right in and learn a lot of things quickly. There’s so much that goes into it. Some people think you just turn a piece of wood on a lathe. They don’t realize the whole gambit of everything that is happening and all of the finishing that makes a high-end product. I was lucky enough to see the behind-the-scenes aspects of the business to know.”
Tom’s love of basketball goes beyond simply playing the game: For two years he was the junior varsity basketball coach at Brevard High School, and last year he decided to coach on the middle school level to help increase younger players’ skills. Meanwhile, as he rode home on the team bus from away games he would answer emails or make phone calls to potential Young Bat customers. He’d head over to the shop some nights after practice. Eventually though, he quit his job as a business teacher at Davidson River School, a school in Transylvania County for students who aren’t thriving in a traditional school environment, to focus on building bats.
“I Can Do That”
It wouldn’t have been a surprise for a pint-sized Chris Young to sit down on a picnic bench, look to his left to find Mickey Mantle, and then look to his right to see Roger Maris.
His father, Jim, had moved to St. Petersburg, Florida, after he participated in spring training with the New York Yankees on a team that included Babe Ruth. Though Jim Young didn’t make the roster as a pitcher, he decided to stay and grow his family there.
“When I was 10 and 11, I worked at Al Lang Field where spring training was,” Chris recalls. “I picked up trash and cushions and whatever they wanted me to do, so I started to get baseball autographs there.”
The family lived near a golf course where players would do events during spring training; Chris would also attend those to grab autographs. He met a lot of the game’s great players, from Stan Musial to Roberto Clemente. As time passed Chris played baseball and basketball in high school and then entered the construction business after his school days ended. He had a basketball scholarship to the University of Florida in hand, but didn’t accept the offer. He has since spent more than four decades as a contractor and still runs a crew at the age of 68.
Over the years he continued to collect autographs from baseball players. “When [my father] would go to autograph shows I would go with him,” Tom says. “I just always felt that famous people were just another person. It was nice to meet the guys who were nice. Even as a kid I could tell who was a genuine, good person and wanted you to be a fan of theirs and who was just there to collect a paycheck or who wanted you to be in awe of them.”
It was an autograph that pushed the elder Young into baseball bat manufacturing. One day in the early ‘90s he walked around a memorabilia show and saw baseball bats on sale for professional players to autograph. He looked closer at the bats. “I can do that,” he thought to himself. He had a lathe at home and decided to make his own bats for players to sign.
That’s when Chris’ life took a slight turn.
“Over the years I had been introduced to some of the Atlanta Braves, so I started to make bats for them to sign,” he remembers. “They said that the wood was way too good to sign and that I need to get licensed by Major League Baseball to make bats. I went to MLB, got approved to make bats, and started making them.”
Chris admits the process then was much easier than today. Now there’s a large fee and insurance costs involved and plenty of rules. All he had to do in the 1990s was send a couple of samples to Major League Baseball’s offices to be approved.
How, though, did a general contractor learn to produce a baseball bat? “I just did it. That’s the way I do stuff,” he says. “It’s no different from making the other things I’ve made.”
Many of the Atlanta Braves, such as Hall of Fame third baseman Chipper Jones, outfielder Andruw Jones, catcher Javier Lopez, and Hall of Fame pitchers Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux used bats made in the Young Bat Brevard shop. It wasn’t just Braves who liked the bats, as Hall of Famer members Tony Gwynn of the San Diego Padres and Mike Piazza of the Los Angeles Dodgers, as well as future Hall of Famer New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, plus many others, hit homers with Chris’ creations.
To attract top-tier clients, Chris frequently hopped into an old 16-seat passenger van dubbed The Green Machine (the BatMobile would also work for a name) and drove to Atlanta for home stands. He would carry a dozen bats onto the empty diamond and lean them against the batting cage, where players would grab one to swing during batting practice. There’s a photo posted on the company’s Facebook page that shows Chris Young, arms folded across his chest, watching batting practice while Chipper Jones leans on a black bat to the left of Young and former Braves first baseman Andrés Galarraga stands closer to the backstop.
“I worked out of the Atlanta Braves stadium,” explains Chris. “Every time there was a visiting team coming in, I’d go down there and take bats to let them try. I was there a couple of times a week. I’d see the Braves all the time.” He adds that he also visited other stadiums when he could. “That was a time when I had full access. I could get on the field at every batting practice. I’d get in the locker rooms. I could go anywhere in the stadium. Those times have all changed.”
The business grew tremendously over the years, to the point where Young Bat employed 17 others and made more than 100,000 bats a year. The company didn’t just make bats with the “Young Bat Company” logo, but also for others. For several years every Mizuno bat sold was actually made by Chris and his staff, ultimately doing private label work for 14 different bat companies.
“I knew it would come to that,” he says. “That’s the way businesses run—everything is private label. Companies just put their name on it.
There’s only a few companies who are making things. If you make a good product, people want you to make it for them.”
From 1993 to 2005 he enjoyed being the manufacturer of baseball bats. Then one day, he didn’t anymore.
“I got bored,” Chris says. “Once I figured out how to make bats, then I figured out how to make barstools, and then I made other furniture out of bats, and then I made the 360 Woody composite bat and got it patented, and then I made machinery for the shop. After awhile I was ready to move on.”
Friends And Business Partners
Cody Siniard and Tom Young were born one day apart in August and they celebrated many childhood birthdays at Atlanta Braves games. You’d think two kids from the South, in an area where baseball fans knew exactly which team would play after The Andy Griffith Show aired on TBS every summer evening, would cheer for America’s Team. Instead, they were Colorado Rockies’ fans.
They couldn’t, though, be there decked out in purple and black when everyone around then wore blue and red and did the Tomahawk Chop. Those memories, like so many others, can be rekindled quickly between the two as they work in close quarters. “We’ve been best friends since I can remember,” Siniard says. “We went to preschool together and played basketball together.”
Basketball became their sport. They played travel ball before travel ball was cool. They played against future NBA superstar Steph Curry and former Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Sidney Rice. They’d walk into a gym decked out in Mizuno gear because of Young Bat Company’s relationship with the sporting goods supplier. They starred at Brevard High School and then went separate ways for college — Siniard to Mars Hill and Young to the University of North Carolina Greensboro. They each lasted one year away from Brevard, before they transferred back to play for their hometown college along with Andrew Freeman, who works in the close quarters of the front room with his pals.
As seniors, Siniard and Young dressed in baseball uniforms to present a business class project about a bat company geared toward the international market. They earned an A-minus. They’re still bitter. The two say they learned a lot while they attended Brevard College that they still use.
It was there that Siniard became a musician. After he injured his leg as a senior, he began to pluck the guitar and songwriting followed. He’s released three albums, including 2017’s Runnin’ Outta Songs, and continues to tour throughout the Western North Carolina region, even though he works seven days a week most weeks painting bats, designing logos, and using a laser to engrave mugs. He’ll toss his gear into the back of his old Chevy Silverado and play shows at area music venues, breweries, and coffee houses, and he’ll wear his Young Bat Company shirts or hat. (Before you ask, no, he doesn’t sip from a Young Bat Company bat mug in between songs.)
“It’s pretty hard,” Siniard says, of doing both jobs. “Since I began doing this I don’t have time to write music anymore or learn new covers. I’m going off what I’ve already learned on the guitar. This job is my first priority. It’s taken away from the creative side of my music because I have to be creative here all day. There’s only so much your brain can do. I get home and I just want to lay there.”
Siniard’s creativity stems from his own passion to do more in a job. After college he took a position at a UPS store in Brevard. The company wanted to grow sales, so he began to push business cards, rack cards, and brochures to customers. Eventually sales grew to a point where his plans were implemented elsewhere and he was in charge of seven stores.
He taught himself graphic design while at UPS and learned web design for his music career. Now he does much of the website and social media for Young Bat.
“It’s saving us a lot of money, and I like doing it. I’m getting better at it,” Siniard says. “Not many companies do what we’re doing. Someone sent me a picture of a tiger the other day and wanted the tiger’s eyes on a bat. Knowing what the file has to look like so it will engrave properly on the bat and being able to do that is really rare. I’m sure there are other bat companies who can do it, but just don’t have the time or want to invest in someone to do that. It separates us from other companies, being able to do the custom work.”
Bar Aspiration Brings Creation
As plans for the company’s direction were bounced around, there was talk of opening a bar in Brevard, one that would tell of the company’s history. “Wouldn’t it be cool to drink from a bat?” someone said. That’s when the creative nature of the Youngs and Siniard began to dream. Some wood isn’t good for bats. Maybe there’s a nick in the bat or the wood isn’t top grade. There’s always some leftovers.
So one day they began drilling the barrel of a bat to see if it would hold liquid. “We looked at how deep you could go, knowing a billet,” Tom says. “We have to go seven inches tall to get 12 ounces in there. We went through and tried to make sure what we’d have to have to make the bat mug successful.”
“I really love the bat mug,” says former professional player Justin Jackson, who starred at T.C. Roberson and used a Young bat when he was an aspiring player. He’s now in film school in Los Angeles and filmed an ad for the company that is posted online. “For anyone who is a baseball fan it’s a great talking piece to have in your collection. Plus, the fact you can actually drink out of it makes for a really cool thing to have and I’m so happy that they made me a custom ‘Lights, Camera, Jackson’ bat mug.”
The idea has been more successful than anticipated. A Canadian groom recently ordered some for his groomsmen. A company ordered 200 with their logo—which Siniard revamped—to give away. More orders like that are expected, Tom says. They made a mug for Colorado Rockies outfielder Charlie Blackmon that contained an etching of his “ChuckNazty” logo. Last Christmas was big for the personalized mugs and the company has put faces, logos, and names on mugs already.
The same can be said for bats, as Siniard has painted multicolor bats, bats with footprints, and, more and more, high-art work on wood. Their social media accounts are filled with sharp images of bats that are splashed with color and design, such as a bat for Brevard High School’s softball coach that is painted blue and white horizontally with alternating colored lettering.
“We make bats like that, not to sell a lot of, but to get a lot of ‘likes’ on social media. There’s a big difference,” Siniard says. “We’re not going to make a lot of money on a bat like that, but indirectly we will. People will see it and think, ‘Man, that’s so cool,’ and they’ll look at the other things we do.”
Young Bat Company does a lot and they are doing it well. Just like when Chris Young ran the company a decade ago.
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