Gearing Up: Equipment companies ready for post-lockout rush

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Chicago White Sox minor league outfielder Duke Ellis prepares for batting practice during a minor league baseball spring training workout Thursday, March 10, 2022, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

CHICAGO – Travis Copley, the vice president of sales and marketing for Old Hickory Bats, has two sons, ages 18 and 14. After his wife recently posted on social media about their oldest son pitching, she started hearing from some of Travis' big league clients.

“They're like, ‘Hey, he looks really good. Hope everything is well,’" said Copley, whose company makes bats for Mike Trout and other stars. “I'm like ‘You’re getting more love from the big league guys than I am right now.'”

That's about to change.

The end of baseball's 99-day lockout means it's time for players across the sport to take a closer look at their supply of bats and gloves for the grind of a 162-game season. The first spring training games are scheduled for next week, and opening day is April 7.

While baseball's leading equipment companies have been in a bit of a holding pattern with their major leaguers because of the labor strife, they have been preparing to meet the anticipated rush whenever the lockout ended.

Now, that time has arrived.

“The lockout, to be honest with you, really hasn’t slowed us down,” said Ben Chase, the CEO of Chandler Bats. “In fact, in a lot of ways, I think it’s just been a natural progression of our efforts to improve our communication. We've been producing pro orders all winter long regardless of where they came from.”

Mike Thompson, the chief marketing officer for Rawlings Sporting Goods — which is owned by Major League Baseball and a private equity fund connected to San Diego Padres chairman Peter Seidler — said the lockout didn't affect his company very much.

“We're so integrated into the game as the official ball, the official helmet and the official glove, and our relations with players, that we weren't sitting around waiting for things to happen,” he said. “We were queuing up everything, getting everything ready.”

Some teams waited on baseball orders for spring training because of the lockout, Thompson said. Rawlings also has been dealing with what Thompson described as a “mild disruption” with its supply chain.

“Maybe catching gear has been a little tricky,” he said. “We're having to put things on airplanes and that kind of thing. But just the staples of the game — you know, helmets, balls, gloves — we do that in our sleep.”

Before COVID-19, reps from equipment companies were a frequent sight in major league clubhouses — especially during spring training. They would use the time to check in with clients, and see if they wanted to make any modifications. It also provided an opportunity to show other ballplayers what they are doing with their products.

But the pandemic pushed the reps out of clubhouses, forcing them to adjust how they work with their highest profile customers. The changes they made because of COVID-19 were put to good use when the lockout disrupted the sport's usual schedule.

“We're not unfamiliar with it,” said Copley, whose clients at Old Hickory also include Nolan Arenado and Charlie Blackmon. “We've done a good job as a company over the years of building relationships with players that you know with a lot of guys I can reach out directly to them and just be like, ‘Hey, it’s a lockout, it is what it is, we want to do our due diligence to make sure that we're on top of this.'”

But, with COVID-19 numbers falling across much of the country and the new labor deal in place, equipment companies are hoping for more direct contact with their ballplayers this spring.

“I've worked remotely for a long time, but that's new for our sales reps,” Chase said. “They're really relying on that face time to build relationships, so I just think that that's the No. 1 thing that we've been lacking. This year, last year, it's been very, very limited.”

Chase joined Chandler, which is owned by longtime slugger Yoenis Céspedes and provides bats for Carlos Correa, Nick Castellanos, Javier Báez and several more major leaguers, at the end of 2020. The company then relocated from Pennsylvania to Florida during the middle of last season.

Chase called the move “an extremely difficult period of time” for Chandler, one that he thinks will pay off now with the lockout over.

“During that time, we just went ahead and doubled down on our efforts for continuing to improve our manufacturing processes and ... improving our efficiency, our communication and our touchpoints to make sure we're providing the best possible service,” he said. “So in a sense, yeah, I mean that was a dry run I guess you can call it, but it was more of a fire drill for us.”

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Jay Cohen can be reached at https://twitter.com/jcohenap

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