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Maple baseball bats turn Norristown factory into a phenom

On the eve his high school's bid for the New York state baseball championship, Elvin Soto took a bus to Norristown in search of a little magic.

Dave Owen finish sands a bat at Rx Sport. High-end maple models are a specialty at the Norristown, Pa. company. (April Saul/Staff)
Dave Owen finish sands a bat at Rx Sport. High-end maple models are a specialty at the Norristown, Pa. company. (April Saul/Staff)Read more

On the eve his high school's bid for the New York state baseball championship, Elvin Soto took a bus to Norristown in search of a little magic.

The 18-year-old from the Bronx thought he might find it in an airy factory on Washington Street whose product is a draw for an increasing number of ballplayers looking for a bit of the lightning that sends blasts off the bats of major-leaguers Shane Victorino and Josh Hamilton.

The budding high school star is part of the fast-growing customer list of Rx Sport, launched just 18 months ago with the goal of using the secrets of luxury furniture-making to improve the lumber of the national pastime.

"This is the best bat," Soto said as he held one of the custom maple bats last week. Soto, who is headed to the University of Pittsburgh in the fall, called the bat "a confidence builder" that has added more power to his line drives.

He buys three or four of the bats a year - "as many as I can afford." At $175 each, they are the most expensive on the market, according to the manufacturer. That didn't stop Soto from also buying a specially made pink bat for his mother.

Soto's devotion impressed the small crowd of batting aficionados at the factory. They included a couple of amateur players from West Chester who hovered around as worker Kevin Hollidge ran a cylinder of high-grade maple through a lathe.

That buzz is music to the ears of Rx Sport's ambitious founder, David Chandler.

Hamilton, last year's American League MVP with the Texas Rangers, "came back last night off of the disabled list with a broken arm and hit a line drive to right field 380 feet. That's great to see," Chandler said Tuesday. "That's the type of confidence that we're selling."

But the 42-year-old Chandler, who lives in Chestnut Hill, is also selling something else with his business venture: a small-manufacturer success story that in a way is as all-American as a Victorino triple in the alley for the Phillies or the aroma of hot dogs wafting down the aisles at Citizens Bank Park.

With degrees in business administration and design, Chandler initially worked in high-end furniture design and manufacturing for Marshall James Furniture, first out of Chicago and later in Greensboro, N.C.

That industry has struggled in recent years because of increased competition from Asian manufacturers, he said, and his frustration inspired him three years ago to look into a better way to make a baseball bat. It was a problem he approached with what you might call Yankee ingenuity.

"With my background in manufacturing, the bat was natural for me to be curious about, and, frankly, I said, 'I can do a better bat,' " Chandler said.

Specifically, a better maple bat.

Maple bats became a favorite of an increasing number of players - bats made of ash are more typical - after Barry Bonds used one to hit 73 home runs in 2001. The bats are prized for their resiliency and durability, but they also have a reputation for splintering dangerously when they break.

"It came across in the media that someone's going to get killed unless Major League Baseball bans maple," Chandler said.

His extensive knowledge of furniture-making told him that should not happen.

"I looked at that and said, "No, it's not that it's improper wood," Chandler recalled. "It's not being processed and manufactured properly, and that's what's resulting in this alarming breakage."

His company starts with top-quality wood, making sure the grain is straight so it doesn't break, he said. Spraying the finish rather than hand-dipping adds to the resiliency. The whole process takes about a week, including time for sealing and finishing, and each bat is inspected 11 times.

"It's paramount that players get a consistent product from us," Chandler said. "That's the key element in quality - not just performance, but that we can do it over and over and over again."

It took a stroke of fate for Chandler to launch his business here. His wife, Julie Moldenhauer, a physician with a specialty in fetal surgery, was recruited to Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, so Chandler, Moldenhauer, and their four children moved to the city. Chandler set up Rx Sport in a small furniture co-op in Germantown.

The company sold 11,000 bats last year and is one of 33 bat manufacturers certified by Major League Baseball. Chandler moved his operation to Norristown May 1 and hopes the 40,000-square-foot factory will allow him to make and sell as many as 60,000 bats annually.

Chandler has big plans for the new site - a 20-by-80-foot professional hitting tunnel and a store and memorabilia room for the baseball groupies who loiter around the lathe.

"I love it," he said of his midlife career change. "I hang out with baseball players all day."

Forging high-quality bats was only part of Chandler's challenge; he also needed to forge relationships with a finicky breed of customer - baseball superstars as well as young prospects, like Soto, seeking an advantage at the plate.

Thus the new bat-maker had to learn the special needs of players such as Victorino, the "Flyin' Hawaiian," who has increasingly added the long ball to his repertoire. Last year, the centerfielder hit 18 home runs, the most in his major-league career.

"When Shane came to us and said, 'Hey, this is a model I'd like to have you guys making,' what I loved about it is the fact that it uses an extremely high-density piece of wood," Chandler said. "The more dense the wood is, the harder it is, and the harder it is, the further the ball carries." He said a version of Victorino's bat, the VIC8, was the company's most popular model.

Chandler said he also was in awe of his blossoming relationship with Hamilton, whose record 28 blasts in the first round of the 2008 Home Run Derby are part of baseball lore. "He can hit anything in the world, and he's using a bat from little old me," Chandler marveled.

Some 36 major-leaguers, including Luke Scott and Adam Jones of the Baltimore Orioles and Jarrod Saltalamacchia of the Boston Red Sox, are customers.

The company also draws from the larger pool of high school and other amateur players looking for an edge and willing to pay top dollar to get it. Among them are Kevin McKernan of the West Chester Adult Baseball League, who was hanging out at the shop - instead of at his job - when Soto was there. Frustrated with the $80 to $90 bats he had bought online, McKearnan worked with Chandler on a custom bat, and "next thing you know, the ball's jumping."

Meanwhile, back at home, Chandler's 5-year-old son has taught him there's one problem with baseball bats that even he can't solve.

"Aimon has a very unique approach," he said. "We've suffered four broken windows this spring in the backyard. He's banned from using hardballs in the backyard."