This story was originally published in the Charleston Daily Mail on Oct. 22, 2014.
MAN — Drive down Main Street, and it’s easy to tell what people in this small Logan County town have on their minds.
Painted bedsheets and poster boards hang on fences and front porches, proclaiming support for the Man Hillbillies football team.
Friday night lights are a big draw in southern West Virginia. Often, the local football team is the only entertainment in town.
But there’s at least one guy in Man who isn’t that interested in pigskin.
Mike Crosby is stuck in baseball season.
Working out of a matchbox-sized shop built onto the side of his well-kempt double-wide trailer, Crosby spends his days turning out custom-made baseball bats he says will rival anything produced in Louisville, Ky..
Crosby, 40, designs the bats on his home computer, drawing out the blueprints like an architect.
These plans are converted to sets of coordinates, which tell his computer-operated wood lathe how to shape the bat. He has different patterns for tee ball, Little League, middle school, high school and professional baseball players.
Once the designs are loaded into the lathe, all Crosby has to do is fasten a piece of wood into the machine and select which pattern to use.
The lathe takes over from there, moving its spinning blades over the wood, shaving the cylindrical billet into a baseball bat.
The process now takes about three minutes, but it took Crosby months to make his first baseball bat.
“It was hard to learn. I’d never done anything like this before,” he said.
x x x
Crosby fell in love with baseball at an early age.
“My dad was arguably the best baseball player in southern West Virginia,” he said.
His father, Tommy, attended try-out camps for the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Cincinnati Reds, and was offered a temporary minor league contract by both teams.
Tommy turned down the offer, however, because he had a wife and child at home. He could make more money working in the coal mines.
But Crosby’s father continued to play ball, spending each weekend playing softball with a local men’s league.
Crosby remembers passing a ball around with the players when he was five years old.
He eventually became a ballplayer just like his dad, playing for Man High School before heading off to college.
He briefly attended Marietta College in Ohio and then transferred to Garrett Junior College in McHenry, Md., where he played for current West Virginia University Institute of Technology baseball coach Lawrence Nesselrodt.
“That man brought something out in me I never knew I had,” he said.
By his sophomore year, Crosby was leading the junior college conference in every offensive category except batting average.
His time in college baseball was cut short, however, when he got upset with a pitcher, punched a dugout wall and broke his hand.
The injury knocked him out of the major league draft. He moved to Pennsylvania to play in a men’s league.
In 1994, he drove to Pittsburgh to attend a Pirates try-out camp.
“When I threw to second base, their eyes got as big around as golf balls.”
The next year, the Pirates invited him to spring training. He spent a season playing for a Pirates farm team in Bradenton, Fla., the Gulf Coast Pirates, before another stroke of bad luck sent him to the dugout.
During a game against the Sarasota Orioles at spring training, he was catching against a Baltimore Orioles team, when a batter hit a ground ball to the short stop.
Crosby left home base and sprinted down the first base line to back up the play.
“My foot just popped,” he said.
He tried to walk off the pain. After a few more pitches, he rose to catch a popped foul. “As I turned to push off of that foot, I just went down. I knew something was wrong.”
Crosby had broken a bone on the outside of his foot. He would be unable to begin the season.
He returned to West Virginia and got a job at 84 Lumber in Elkview.
About two years later, while hefting bags of concrete from a delivery truck, the store manager told Crosby he had a phone call.
It was a scouting director for the New York Mets. The team wanted to offer Crosby a single-A contract.
Crosby said he would only sign if the team would let him play for a double-A minor league team.
The scout declined.
x x x
Once Crosby has cut the baseball bat, he transfers it to a manual lathe for the finishing touches.
As it spins, he holds a piece of heavy-grit sandpaper around the bat, sending puffs of sawdust into the air. All the bumps and ridges left by the computerized lathe are gone in just a few seconds.
If he’s working on a bat that will be used during games, Crosby next takes a hard piece of wood or animal bone and runs it along the length of the bat.
“It compresses the fibers to keep the bat from chipping,” he said.
Next, he goes over the wood with fine sandpaper. Then he runs his bare hand over it, using the moisture from his skin to pick up any leftover sawdust.
Crosby now reaches into his extensive collection of spray paint, which he keeps in a cardboard box above his sanding station. He tests the spray can on the front edge of his workbench, adding to the rainbow of paint blotches that cover the wood.
He has learned that painting bats while they are still on the lathe ensures the paint is applied as evenly as possible.
This is a two-tone bat, red with an unpainted handle, so Crosby holds a small piece of cardboard against the handle as he shoots paint onto the wood.
He depresses the button on the spray can and in just a few seconds the whole barrel of the bat has turned red.
Crosby props the bat in a corner to dry.
He’ll wait one day before moving on to the next phase of the process.
Go any faster and the paint job will be ruined. Like most of his bat-making process, Crosby learned this the hard way.
x x x
After giving up on baseball, Crosby spent five years on the independent professional wrestling circuit performing under the name “Mike Montana.”
“When I got done with baseball, I craved that attention. Just having people cheer for you again, that filled the void,” he said.
He eventually began working in construction but didn’t like it very much.
He went to work in the coal mines but, given the tumultuous nature of that business, decided he needed a backup plan.
One day Crosby was watching the Discovery Channel show “How It’s Made” and saw a segment on Sam Bat, the “Original Maple Bat Corporation.”
He remembered walking through the locker rooms during his days in the minor leagues.
“Every locker, every guy had a different bat,” he said.
Crosby remembered how intrigued he was by those bats, how simple and beautiful they were. He decided to try making a baseball bat. He purchased a wood lathe on eBay and went to work in a shed behind his house.
His first attempt didn’t work out so well. He spent two hours working the wood on the lathe but emerged less than victorious.
He showed his creation to his wife, Rebecca.
“I thought, that’s not even close. We’re going to starve,” she said.
Crosby still has that first bat, to remind him where he started. It resembles a baseball bat, but only vaguely.
It looks more like a caveman’s club. The wood is rough with none of the delicate curves of the bats he now produces.
Crosby realized he would need to upgrade his equipment if he wanted to make a high-quality product. After a little searching online, he found a Chinese company that makes computer-driven lathes.
He dropped about $12,000 on the machine and built a shop onto the side of his home for it.
The lathe arrived three months later, but it took him five months to learn to use it.
Crosby had never used computer design programs before, so he called a professor at Ohio State, who sold him a set of instructional DVDs on the subject.
“I never was a good student but I studied it and figured it out,” he said.
But even after he learned to use the necessary computer programs, Crosby still could not make a bat on his lathe.
The wood shattered each time he tried, sending shrapnel flying through his shop.
He finally contacted Steve Toth from Lehigh Valley Bat Works in Bethlehem, Penn..
Toth was interested in Crosby’s computerized lathe, so they worked out a deal. Toth would come check out Crosby’s gear, as long as he showed Crosby how to use the equipment.
The men worked all day in the tiny wood shop. By that evening, Crosby had made his first real baseball bat.
He emerged from the shop, bat in hand, to find Rebecca sitting on the porch steps.
“I said ‘What do you think?’ And she smiled real big.”
Crosby Bats was in business.
x x x
Each of his bats feature a large “Crosby Bats” logo on the sweet spot, just like the major bat manufacturers do. Crosby also personalizes the bats with players’ names and numbers, if requested.
He makes each of the decals using a vinyl cutter, but Crosby eventually plans to invest in a laser engraver.
Once the decals are applied, he puts a staple in the handle end of the bat and, using a wire hanger, dips it into a big PVC tube filled with polyurethane.
He hangs the bat in a small drying bay.
After the sealant dries, he uses fine grit sandpaper to remove any remaining rough spots.
Crosby also checks the bat’s weight by hanging it on a digital scale.
Players can request certain weights for their bats, and while there’s not much Crosby can do to increase a bat’s weight, he can shave off five to eight ounces by cupping out the end of the barrel.
He uses a standard hardware store router with a custom-built jig that holds the bat steady while the router drills into the end.
Once finished, Crosby wraps each bat in plastic cling wraps to protect the finish during shipping, and sends the bat off to his customer.
When he started the company in 2011, his goal was to get his bats in sporting good stores around the country.
“I never dreamed I’d have very much business around here,” he said.
His bats are now being used by young players throughout Logan, Kanawha and Putnam counties, and West Virginia University Institute of Technology and Davis and Elkins College have both purchased trophy bats from Crosby.
While he does sell bats in some sporting goods stores in Arizona, most of Crosby’s sales come through his website or word-of-mouth.
Crosby currently is not licensed to manufacture bats for Major League Baseball.
He figures he’ll take that step when one of his faithful high school customers gets drafted into the minors.
The shop remains a very small operation but, in some ways, that works in Crosby’s favor.
Major manufacturers churn out thousands of bats every day. The factories have quality control standards, but substandard products inevitably slip through.
Crosby said mass-manufactured bats often arrive at stores already broken.
Although it might look perfect on the outside, the wood is fractured on the inside.
You can tell by holding it loosely in your hand and tapping it against the ground. A good bat should carry the vibrations. A broken bat will not.
Crosby said most parents don’t take time to check their bats in the sporting goods store, however. They only realize something is wrong when their young ballplayer hits a fastball and his brand-new, expensive bat is reduced to firewood.
Crosby tests each of his bats before he ships them to customers. If he finds one that is broken inside, he puts it aside and uses it as a trophy bat.
But that’s not the only reason players like Crosby Bats. While bats in retail stores can sell for up to $120, Crosby’s custom-made bats sell for $60 to $70.
He could charge more — a lot more — but doesn’t want to. He prefers to keep them affordable for young players.
“I just want them to get out there,” he said.
While he would eventually like to make Crosby Bats his full-time business, Crosby’s number one drive is the love of the game.
Looking back, he knows he threw away an opportunity to realize his childhood dream of playing professional baseball.
He thinks if he had tried a little harder, he probably would have achieved his goal.
“My old saying was, I’d drive a bus, sleep in a tent and eat bologna sandwiches if I could get a contract.”
But he’s not sorry. Crosby has a wife and two daughters, he’s involved in his church and enjoys helping young baseball players hone their skills.
“If I would have made it to the big leagues I would have self-destructed,” he said. “I like the person I am now.”
Crosby doesn’t get to play anymore. But all over southern West Virginia, players are carrying his custom-made baseball bats to home plate.
They get to feel the vibrations ripple through their arms as wood meets leather. They get to watch the ball fly for the fences.
With a little luck and a lot of work, these boys of summer might get to see their dreams come true.
And if they do, they will take a small piece of Crosby with them.