Business

The AXE bat: Hitters get a powerful grip on it

Hugh Tompkins of Baden Sports explains the ergonomics of the AXE bat. - Dean A. Radford, Renton Reporter
Hugh Tompkins of Baden Sports explains the ergonomics of the AXE bat.
— image credit: Dean A. Radford, Renton Reporter

A sports-ball company founded in Renton 35 years ago has built a revolutionary baseball bat, something that hasn’t happened since the first one was likely crafted from an ash tree about 150 years ago.

The bat is called the AXE bat because of its ax-like handle that by design puts the hitter’s grip in just the right position to power the bat through a swing.

What it means for the player is this: “It allows them to unleash their maximum amount of bat speed and their maximum performance,” says Hugh Tompkins, Baden Sports Inc.’s director of research and development.

Baden Sports is a name many young athletes will recognize because Baden is emblazoned across sports balls from basketballs to volleyballs to soccer balls to footballs to baseballs used by high schools and colleges across the country.

Baden is the official game ball of the Washington Interscholastic Athletic Association, so its balls are used at all WIAA-sponsored, high school events.

Rusty Trudeau of Tukwila is Baden’s national account manager who talks with players, coaches and schools about the AXE bat.

“The bat teaches them the proper grip,” Trudeau said of its design. “It’s not a magic wand. We all wish it was. But it’s close to it.”

Trudeau played baseball at Foster High School, where he later coached.

What would become Baden Sports began with an idea to sell tennis balls in the mid 1970s. E.C. Schindler, father of Michael Schindler, the current CE0, agreed to finance a startup.

The offices were on Oakesdale Avenue, close to the horse stables at Longacres Racetrack where E.C. Schindler owned horses. About that time, tennis was on a “downward slide,” according to Michael Schindler, so the company considered it’s next move.

The Schindlers knew about basketball; the elder Schindler coached his kids and his son played at Seattle Prep. The Schindlers lived in Lakeridge during Michael’s high school years. He remembers a basketball game against Renton High School in the postseason when his friends from their neighborhood showered him with cat-calls.

The family business evolved into selling leather basketballs in 1980, the Schindlers’ first foray into a high-end market. Eventually, basketballs and volleyballs became the company’s biggest sellers.

It was also the time when the Schindlers took a close look at the quality of other sports balls sold by the big-name companies in the U.S. and found it lacking.

“It was unbelievable how bad the game-ball business was at that point in terms of quality,” Schindler said.

So, the family, which still owns the company, found a manufacturer in Japan. It’s balls and other equipment are manufactured in Asia today.

“We were committed to make a ball that didn’t have all the out-of-round problems and leakers,” he said.

And that’s where Baden’s pursuit of the perfect basketball began, repeated again and again with other sports balls.

Timing played a critical part in Baden’s success, too. In the early 1980s, the coaches of women’s college basketball were considering switching to a smaller ball. Baden had one.

Michael Schindler had developed a friendship with the association’s president, who called (from a pay phone) and asked the size of his company’s basketball: one inch smaller and two ounces lighter than the men’s ball. Soon after, the coaches adopted a new ball size that fit those dimensions.

And at 5 a.m. the next morning Schindler and his four employees hit the phones, calling hundreds of college basketball coaches across the country over the next two months to let them know Baden had the ball (probably the only one) that fit the new size requirement.

“We were flying in balls as fast as we could make them,” he said.

It was “a huge moment” for the company, Schindler said. From selling no basketballs to college women’s teams, Baden had captured 73 percent of the market for the 1984-85 season, he said.

“We became a major factor at the game-ball level, virtually overnight,” he said.

About the same time, Baden (named by the Schindler family after the sports-minded city of Baden-Baden, Germany) moved to Federal Way. It returned to Renton about 18 months ago, to Lind Avenue Southwest, where it has about 75,000 square feet of space.

The idea for the AXE bat came to Baden in a phone call to Trudeau.

About four years ago, a man from back East asked Baden to take a look at this bat he had designed and patented. Trudeau asked what made it special. It has an axed-shaped handle. Trudeau was interested. He had had his players hit tires in practice with an ax to promote a position of power holding a bat.

Ted Williams, one of the greatest hitters of all time, swung an ax in the off-season.

Trudeau kept the prototype in his office for about two weeks, holding it, then going back to work. Finally, he told himself, “I believe in it.”

“I marched up to our owner’s office, showed him the bat and the rest is history,” he said. That prototype is on display in Schindler’s office.

Tompkins spent months refining the bat, with repeated testing in a batting cage in the company warehouse.

“Quite honestly, these guys are trying to break it,” said Trudeau, reaching maximum performance before it actually breaks – or cracks in the case of a carbon-fiber bat.

The AXE bat replaces the protruding knob on the handle, which basically got in the way of the hitter’s hands. Now, a hitter’s bottom hand holds an oval shape, while the top hand is on a round shape.

A hitter’s grip is stabilized and the bat’s ergonomic design means that more of a hitter’s power transfers from the bat to the ball. (Details of how the bat’s ergonomics are available online at www.axebat.com.)

The AXE bat is now approved for play at all levels of sports; Major League players can use an wood-version of the AXE bat. Renton Little League players can choose it as their bat.

The current version of the AXE bat when to market in 2013, and this year, the full line and fully refined and developed knob of AXE bats is on the market, according to Tompkins.

“Revolutionary is a very strong word,” said Trudeau. “But that is exactly what we are doing in the game of baseball that hasn’t changed much in 150 years plus.”

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