Build Your Adventure

October 25, 2011

Wisconsin State Journal

Wisconsin State Journal

MONONA — Roland Hernandez didn't grow up playing baseball and isn't a skilled woodworker.

Instead, the Texas native, who has called the Madison area home since 1990, is a wood scientist.

That background has helped him turn a hobby of selling wood and making a few hundred baseball bats a year into a full-time Internet-based business known as RockBats.

Hernandez, who spent 17 years at the U.S. Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, owns the Monona company with eight others who have experience in woodworking, baseball and business. They are combining their efforts to grow RockBats into a company that could someday make 15,000 maple bats a year at a mill in Antigo, about 180 miles north of Madison.

Hernandez is working to get his bats into the hands of more Major League Baseball players, capitalizing on his understanding of wood properties and creating a product that has the right feel for finicky users. Because he uses maple with only the straightest grains, he says his bats don't break as often as other wood baseball bats.

"A lot of (bat companies) have to start at the bottom and get minor leaguers to use their bats," Hernandez said. "Ours is an oddball business model. We're actually under the radar of a lot of minor league players."

But Hernandez is no oddball.

Between 2002 and 2005, he introduced slope-of-grain grading to help determine the strength of a bat and he labeled bats so players would orient the bats to hit a ball on the flat-grain side, which is stronger than the edge grain.

In 2009, MLB adopted a nine-step program to reduce the number of bats breaking in two pieces. The steps included flat-grain contact for maple bats and slope-of-grain grading criteria for all bats.

There are about 150 bat manufacturers in the country but only 32, including RockBats, were certified by MLB in 2010.

"It's a hobby that went out of control," Hernandez said of his wood projects.

A typical MLB player goes through 12 to 14 dozen bats in a season. Corey Hart of the Milwaukee Brewers has used RockBats since 2010 and went through only about four dozen bats this season, Hernandez said.

Brad Woodall pitched for the Atlanta Braves, Brewers and Chicago Cubs and has his own baseball instruction company in Madison. He also runs a fall youth league that uses only wood bats.

"It's very important for them to have consistency in the bats they use," Woodall said. "If you hit a home run with a bat, you want to keep it in your hand as long as possible."

Players are eager to try new products because "they are always looking for ways to get better," Woodall said. But with bats, many players are locked into contracts that force them to only use a certain brand during games, he said.

Hernandez has been patient with his company.

In 2000, while at FPL, known for its comprehensive research on wood, he started a side business selling high-quality lumber to wood workers. A year later, he began selling 3-inch-square, 36-inch-long billets, also known as blanks, to various baseball bat manufacturers. Two of the companies became certified by MLB and the demand grew to about 3,000 billets a month. Feedback from players on the quality of the wood persuaded him in 2002 to begin making his own bats, which he sold online and in a few specialty baseball shops.

Hernandez got his foot in the door with the Brewers in 2009 when he offered to grade and rate all their bats. It resulted in the Brewers having the fewest two-piece broken bats in the league.

In 2010, after approval from MLB, 12 Brewers used RockBats at various times in the season. This year, 10 players with the Colorado Rockies used the bats, including Troy Tulowitzki, Jason Giambi and Todd Helton.

In the spring, Hernandez plans to focus on the American League champion Texas Rangers and incrementally add teams. He doesn't want to grow too fast.

"Companies get too big, too fast," Hernandez said. "They offer great wood quality early, and when too many players start using their bats, their wood quality plummets across the board."

While the company is run out of Hernandez's home in Monona, the bats are manufactured at Zelazoski Wood Products in Antigo. The company, founded in 1924, began making agricultural products and then blocks for the brush and broom industry. The company employs 18 people and also makes cutlery racks, furniture parts, fishing lure bodies and turkey calls in a more than 35,000-sqaure-foot facility..

Mill owners Ben Zelazoski, and his brothers Mike and Charlie are among the owners of RockBats. The mill used to employ 45 people but the addition of bats will help retain employees and maybe even add a few as demand increases.

Ben Zelazoski, 61, said his mill has the capacity to make 200 to 300 bats a day using computerized lathes.

The partnership has improved the mill.

"We have a better understanding of wood," Zelazoski said. "We try to supply the best bat that we can. Because it's Roland's baby, he wants to make sure it's good wood going out."

Pieces of maple, 234 inches in diameter and 37 inches long, come from mills throughout Wisconsin but also New York, Vermont and Canada. Hernandez travels to Antigo to grade each one but ultimately wants to create a network of mills in Wisconsin that are constantly on the lookout for maple logs with the straightest grains. After a bat is turned on a lathe, mill workers put an ink spot on the bat to better show the slope of the grain and use a small hammer to check for the sweet spot, which is then marked on all bats, except those going to the big leagues.

"We're never going to get to the Louisville Slugger status and I don't think I would want to be up there," Zelazoski said. "I think we'll branch out as we get a little more notoriety and we start to show the numbers (of bats) Corey goes through compared to others."

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