Every year on our birthdays we get a new power. When you turn 2, you get the power to say, "I 2"; at 16 you get to drive badly; 18 is vote-power; at 35 you can be president, and 20 years later, when you turn 55, you get the power to save 93 cents on your Moons over My Hammy at participating Denny's "restaurants." When I turned 21, I tested my legal-drinking power on the brewery tour at Busch Gardens. The tour was too long, too hot, and smelled too much like a Shetland sheepdog that had been used to mop up after a Salisbury University frat party, and it was still the second greatest factory tour in the world, because at the end they gave me free beer and then let me go back to riding rollercoasters. Did you know that if you sit in the last car on the Loch Ness Monster and time it right, you can throw up on the guy in the front car?
When I started writing for City Paper, my first "perk" was getting a limo ride to Aberdeen to tour the Frito-Lay factory with Mr. Wrong. Wrong convinced me we had to wear suits. Do you know what's worse than touring an industrial bakery in mid-July? Touring an industrial bakery in mid-July while wearing a three-piece suit and non-wicking tie. The tour was too long, too hot, and smelled like a Shetland sheepdog that had been used to mop up after a Salisbury frat party-and there was no beer at the end, just some pretzels and a quiz on the health benefits of a SunChips-centric diet. And there's the rub, factory tours without booze aren't quite one of Dante's hell circles, they're more like the beltway around the circles of hell. My wife is from Louisville, which means we spend time there every December. After last year's incident at the Maker's Mark distillery (I am still not quite sure what happened, but I know for a fact I was wearing my own pants when I got there), I've been banned from bourbon tours, so this last visit, I hit the Louisville Slugger Museum and factory tour. Sadly, there was no booze, but it was still the best tour I've ever done.
The legend of the famous bats began back in 1884, when Bud Hillerich snuck out of work one day from his dad's woodworking shop to catch a baseball game. The star of the Louisville Eclipse was a strapping outfielder named Pete "the Gladiator" Browning, who was mired in a hitting slump, and to make matters worse, he shattered his bat that day. Bud told the Gladiator he could make him a bat like no one had ever seen before, a bat for the ages, and then went back to the shop and did it. It was a gamble, as Bud's dad wanted nothing to do with the bat business, instead wanting to focus on quality butter churns-which, judging by today's thriving DIY butter-churning scene, would also have been a runaway sensation-but Bud won out. On the tour, I got to swing a model of Browning's colossal bat. It lacked the finely tapered handle of today's bats, and wrapping my hands around it felt like trying to choke an iron ostrich. Cupped barrels were almost a century away, and the massive ash cudgel weighed in at a whopping 42 ounces. The Gladiator went on to win his second and third batting titles and post a lifetime .341 average with Bud's bats. He also earned another nickname, the Louisville Slugger, a name bats made by the Hillerich & Bradsby Company carry to this day.
Lining up to start the factory tour, I got to swing a selection of historic bats; my favorite was one used by Cal Ripken Jr. during his '86 campaign. The bat is still smooth save the 3-inch-by-1-inch sweet spot of the barrel where the lacquer has worn thin from pounding baseballs in the air over 33rd Street. The bat is white ash, 35 inches long, and 35.5 ounces, with a thin handle carved for contact and emblazoned with the trademarked "Powerized" moniker over a spray of lightning bolts: a model P72. Ripken made the Hall of Fame wielding a long string of P72s, as did fellow Hall of Fame shortstop Robin Yount. Derek Jeter will soon join them there, but several of his P72s are already enshrined. The P72, however, is known as the Pinkham and was named for Les Pinkham, the first man to use one. Pinkham isn't in the Hall; he hit .259 in five years as a minor-league catcher before going on to sell Lincolns in Elizabethtown, Ky.
Leaving the museum and entering the Louisville Slugger factory is a sensory experience on par with your first foot in the waves of Ocean City or your first bite of an Esskay Oriole Frank. The smell of lathed wood is mind-altering, or maybe soul-altering. It smells, with no touch of irony, like America fresh out of the shower. The factory-now in the heart of downtown Louisville, just a few blocks from Louisville Slugger Field, home of the Triple-A Louisville Bats-has surely come a long way in 130 years, but they still turn bats by hand for the tours. Now, the major-league bats are carved by a robotic CNC machine that turns a 37-inch billet wooden cylinder into one of 2,500 bat models every 50 seconds. The machine is still hand-fed, though, by a man with a great black beard. On my tour, he was turning out Adam Jones' AJ10s for the coming season. Jones' bats are the traditional northern white ash, though maple bats have gotten more popular. Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs in 2001, and many credit the maple in his bats for his prodigious power, though the steroids may also have helped.
At the end of the tour there's a batting cage where you can take 10 swings for a buck. I chose a P72 like Ripken, Yount, and Jeter to square off against the machine hurling 50 mph of heat. Three bucks and 30 balls later, I hadn't gotten one out of the cage. Maybe there's a future for me in car sales.