Before Bobby Witt Jr. started at third base for the Kansas City Royals at just 21 years old, he was a Gatorade High School Athlete of the Year, one of the top-ranked professional prospects and ultimately a first-round draft pick.
Witt was the type of guy every bat company has been chasing since he was a teenager, as Homewood Bat Co. President Todd Pals puts it.
So how did he end up swinging a piece of wood crafted in Homewood?
“I just listened to what he said he wanted the bat to feel like in his hands,” Pals said.
Witt picked a model from Homewood Bat that he liked, but explained to Pals what he would change. After that conversation, Pals got to work on tweaking the model, sent Witt the results, and the standout ballplayer told him it was perfect.
“For the last two years, he hasn’t changed his bat model at all,” Pals said. “We’re his bat company. It’s cool.”
When Homewood Bat Co. stepped up to the plate nearly seven years ago, Pals had a game plan. From his 5,400-square-foot space in a business strip at 17845 Bretz Drive, he hoped to offer MLB players a more personalized approach than major market share holders such as Louisville Slugger and Marucci.
He sent bats to David Bote of the Chicago Cubs, asking what he would do differently. Pals wasn’t looking to make wholesale changes at Homewood Bat Co. but learn what he could do for players on an individual level. Bote still uses Homewood hardware.
“We’ve been growing at a good pace,” Pals said. “We got to a point where we are not a new, small bat company on the professional side of things. We’re a known bat company with market share on the Major League side of things and more so on the minor league side of things.”
Professional baseball players have a lot of companies from which they can choose — roughly 30 certified by Major League Baseball, with hundreds of models out there. While some players go with the heavy hitters because they figure the biggest companies must be the best, others want more individual attention.
For Pals that sometimes means getting texts at 1 a.m. from players “trying to get the best competitive advantage they can get” when they’re thinking about it after a game. But the satisfaction of running a company responsive to those needs and chosen as “the one” by a particular player is worth the extra effort.
“Where we gained some market share right away on the professional side was just attention to details and continuing to refine the process until we had the bat feeling perfect in the guy’s hands,” Pals said. “That’s definitely a fun side of the business — not just because you’re working with professional players, but it’s the challenge of finding the perfect bat for them.”
Pals, of Crete, is not exactly new to the game. He played baseball in school, coached and had been involved with the bat business before. That means he had connections, knew wood suppliers, understood the machinery and more. He quickly gained good traction on the pro side.
Pals said roughly a dozen major league ballplayers are using the bats on a regular basis, while as many as 30 have used them in the majors this season. Exact numbers are hard to determine because players move up and down between leagues. Almost 100 minor league players use Homewood bats, he said.
Homewood Bat Co. will have roughly 10,000 bat sales this year and a goal of 15,000 next year. That is despite the toll the pandemic took on an industry that hasn’t fully bounced back. The costs of wood and finish both have been high, and they can be difficult to acquire, Pals said.
“It’s been tough to get great wood, and if you can get it the cost is extremely high,” he said.
Homewood Bat continues to find ways to innovate with what little wiggle room it has under baseball rules. A portion of its retail space has a batting cage for testing products. The company has experimented with alternate knob types, including a slanted one that aims to increase power and reduce injuries. They also created something called the Tek Bat after working with trainers that has a flat barrel and is weighted to help with controlling the swing path.
Pals said he plans next year to include metal bats, too. Homewood Bat Co. would strictly handle the design side while working with factories to produce them. But it would help the company expand its offerings — and reach its goal of selling more bats to the amateur market.
While metal bats are used during regular college seasons, players in summer leagues turn almost exclusively to wood, making college a big market. Homewood also sells to six teams in the Chicago area, including the Joliet Slammers and Windy City ThunderBolts, directly to players as well as in bulk, which has been “a good slice of the business,” according to Pals. They also sell bats online and in an on-site retail space.
The village of Homewood has proven a “great location” for the bat company, as it is close to Interstate 80, a well traveled route for pros and amateurs alike. They stop in all the time, Pals said, and he loves interacting with them.
Pals was always more interested in the active side of baseball rather than being a spectator. And his interest in bat craftsmanship helps him scratch that hands-on baseball itch.
“My wife will remind me sometimes that my interest in baseball bats was unusual,” Pals said with a laugh.
He also likes following the careers of the players with whom he works, including his customers who are still in high school. Pals knew Ed Howard, who was the Cubs first draft pick two years ago, since he was young. And Michael Massey, a Palos Park native who played for Brother Rice before landing a spot on the Royals’ roster, has been using Homewood bats all along the way.
“When a guy like that gets into the majors it’s such a thrill,” Pals said. “You’re rooting for them every step of the way.”
Bill Jones is a freelance reporter for the Daily Southtown.