Roland Hernandez has wood on the brain.
"If you imagine a baseball bat inside a log before it's cut, the best way to hit is with the part closest to the outside of the log," explains Hernandez, the man behind Monona's Rock Bats. "However, that bat comes out of that log, you want to hit on the side closest to the bark, basically. So that right there is telling us there's one best face to hit the ball."
Hernandez makes bats using maple. The bat market was dominated by white ash until 2001, when Barry Bonds jacked 73 dingers with a stick made of sugar maple. Despite maple's strength, its moisture content kept it out of the bat market for decades until the 1990s, when high-tech kilns were developed to properly dry the wood without sacrificing strength.
At the time, Hernandez was a supplier of billets, which are 3-inch-round and 40-inch-wide cuts of wood used by carpenters to turn table legs. He started getting calls from bat makers, including Tuff Bats, who make the X Bat made famous by slugger Sammy Sosa.
"Tuff Bats, in their first year of being Major League-certified, kind of scoured the Internet and found me as a maple supplier for these bat billets," says Hernandez. "So I became a supplier to Major League Baseball bat makers as a hobby business. A lot of the rave reviews that Tuff Bats were receiving was due to their wood. So here I was in the background not receiving any kind of credit for all the work we were doing."
That slight led Hernandez, who has worked for the Forest Service for 17 years, to start his own bat operation turning rock-hard sugar maple billets into Rock Bats.
"You've got baseball bat companies started by former players or by a former carpenter, in the case of the Sam Bat, which is what Barry Bonds swings," says Hernandez. "Our company was founded by a researcher at Forest Products Laboratory. It's funny, but you're cutting one piece of wood and there's a lot of engineering that goes into that."
That much is clear after only a few minutes of listening to Hernandez, whose explanation of how he manufactures his bats makes them seem much cooler and more technically precise than those gaudy composite metal bats that dominate the racks at sporting goods stores.
When swinging a wood bat, even Little Leaguers are instructed to keep the logo of the bat facing up. With an ash bat, that's to ensure that the ball is struck on the edge grain, preventing damage caused by the rings in the wood separating. That same danger doesn't exist with maple, which is anatomically different from ash.
"I test each bat and find the sweet spot location and put the logo on the sweet spot," says Hernandez. "That's actually something that nobody's doing. And when you're thinking about the rings of a tree, there's an orientation that is optimal to hit the ball with. So not only are we putting the logo on the sweet spot along the length of the barrel, but we're actually orienting the bat so you're hitting the ball on the most optimal face of the barrel. And it's all because of the maple that we can do this."
And Hernandez is nothing if not particular about the maple that goes into his bats. "I actually travel to the sawmill to have the logs processed to our specifications and providing standards for them to process," he says. "We're not just ordering blindly, hoping to get some good stock."
Hernandez hopes all this attention to detail will soon put a Rock Bat in the hands of a major leaguer. His company is now aggressively marketing to players with help from a sales staff that includes former major leaguer Matt Boone and Tony Tavares, who ran the Washington Nationals during its move from Montreal.
In the meantime, he's keeping up the pressure on another group of ballplayers: his softball teammates.
"I have a team from Forest Products Laboratory. We call ourselves the Smokey Bears, and there are only two guys who use wood consistently," he says. "When it gets competitive, people start reaching for their metal bat. But I always point out, 'Well, let's see, you paid five times more for that metal bat than our wood bat. Did you hit it five times farther?'"