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Bryce Harper’s bats are inspired by Chase Utley and made by a Philly company

Victus Sports has been making bats for the new Phillies star for a few years. The company is filled with Phillies fans.

Bryce Harper has been using a local company, Victus Sports, for his bats for a few years. Now, he'll be swinging lumber that's been made especially for him just a couple dozen miles away.
Bryce Harper has been using a local company, Victus Sports, for his bats for a few years. Now, he'll be swinging lumber that's been made especially for him just a couple dozen miles away.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

Bryce Harper, for the first time since pledging his desire to spend the rest of his career in Philadelphia, walked through the home dugout at Citizens Bank Park on Wednesday afternoon with a baseball bat clutched in his left hand.

The first game of Harper’s 13-year contract was just days away. The batting cage was positioned behind home plate, and the rest of the Phillies were already on the field. It was time to work.

Harper, standing just outside the cage, sprayed the handle of his bat with an ointment to provide added grip. He clenched the bat, took a few swings, and stepped into the cage. The batter’s box, Harper said, is his sanctuary.

And the bat?

“That’s my tool for the day.”

If all goes well, South Philadelphia will remain Harper’s sanctuary until he is 39 years old. That journey begins Thursday, when Harper steps into that sanctuary for a game in the red pinstripes for the first time. And his tool for the day? It’s made by a King of Prussia company and inspired by the player who best defined the last great era of Phillies baseball.

Jared Smith and Ryan Engroff, 33-year-olds who are childhood friends from Central Pennsylvania, launched Victus Bats in 2012 by matching their basic woodworking skills with an intense passion for baseball.

Smith had quit his job pouring hot steel at a Dauphin County steel mill, and Engroff had walked away from selling mattresses. They wanted to find jobs they loved doing. What better, the friends thought, than making baseball bats?

They had moonlighted as batmakers in a friend’s garage before leaving their jobs to open Victus in Blackwood, Gloucester Township, with the help of an investor from Ocean City.

And then they had a chance to work with one of baseball’s biggest stars.

A few years ago, Smith and Engroff introduced themselves to Harper in the Nationals’ locker room, and he handed them an old model of the bat he was using. It was a Marucci CU7, with the “CU” standing for former Phillies second baseman Chase Utley and the No. 7 representing former Mets infielder Jose Reyes. The bat combined Utley’s barrel and Reyes’ handle.

Make it better, Harper said.

“We are in the constant search for a perfect model for Bryce,” Smith said. “He’s a feel guy, and there’s definitely guys who are that way. There’s plenty of times where he may pick up something different that day, and it just feels better for one reason or the other. We’ve done dozens and dozens of different models for him.”

In the back of a warehouse tucked in an office park behind the King of Prussia Mall — they outgrew the Blackwood shop years ago — is a room stocked with shelves of maple and birch cylinders. The maple, which is what Harper prefers, is inserted into a computer-guided cutting machine to shape it into a baseball bat.

The machine cuts Harper’s “tool” — the KP26 — into a precise 33-inch, 31½-ounce bat. Harper’s bat, which constantly changes, as Victus seeks his perfect fit, is a blend of Utley’s barrel — hence the No. 26 — and the handle, used by Indians catcher Kevin Plawecki.

“It’s the pursuit of perfection for the perfect model for him. And I think we’re definitely close,” Smith said. “I don’t know if we’ll ever get there, but we’re going to keep trying to make the perfect bat that fits his swing perfectly.”

Harper tried the KP26 model halfway through last season and finished the year with a second-half OPS (on-base plus slugging) that was 139 points higher than what he posted in the first half. The bat seemed to help.

After being cut, the bat is sanded, buffed, primed, and accessorized before being shipped to Harper. His signature takes roughly 90 seconds to laser onto the barrel, and a blow dryer makes sure the“Philly Loaded” sticker stays firmly on the knob. When he orders four, Victus makes a dozen and sends the best four. And it all happens just 25 miles from Citizens Bank Park.

“When I put something else in my hand, it just doesn't feel the same,” Harper said. “When I put a Victus in my hand, there’s nothing else I want to swing.”

Victus employs 23 people, most of whom are former baseball players who learned how to make bats once they arrived at the warehouse. The company, Smith said, is built on passion for the game. They close up each year for opening day, and each summer they take a trip to watch the Home Run Derby — which Harper won last year while swinging a Stars-and-Stripes bat that Victus hand-painted for him.

Baseball’s offseason was a busy time, as they worked through the winter to meet the demand for this season’s lumber.

Boston Red Sox star Mookie Betts won last year’s American League MVP while swinging a Victus Bat. George Springer, the World Series MVP with Houston in 2017, swings a Victus. So does the Padres’ No. 1 prospect, Fernando Tatis Jr., and All-Stars Mitch Haniger (Seattle Mariners), Carlos Correa (Houston Astros), and Gary Sanchez (New York Yankees).

Victus is the second-most used bat in Major League Baseball, Smith said. The company was bought in February 2017 by Marucci, the only company with more bats in the majors. The larger company has helped bolster Victus’ retail presence: It’s growing and recently hit the shelves of Dick’s Sporting Goods. The company is planning to unveil batting gloves and aluminum bats.

“We passed Louisville Slugger last year,” Smith said.

Harper was wearing a Victus hat when he disembarked from John Middleton’s private jet in Clearwater, Fla., last month. He was holding a Victus bat last week, when he grinned on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Harper, as the Phillies have already learned, is good for business.

“When he signed in Philly, it was like a party at Victus,” Smith said. “It was a really special moment."

The Phillies’ two biggest motivations to sign Harper were the desire to compete like they did a decade ago, and the need to stoke interest among a fan base that had grown tepid.

On Thursday, Harper will grab his Victus bat in the first inning of the season opener. The sold-out crowd will become unhinged as he walks to home plate. Harper said he will block it out. He has no trouble maintaining his focus.

It will be quite fitting that when Harper enters his sanctuary, his tool for the day will be inspired by Utley and made by a warehouse of Phillies fans.

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