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Maple, Barry make sweet combo

Posted: Tuesday, September 25, 2001

OTTAWA -- In the Mayflower Pub and Restaurant five years ago, an idea emerged that changed a life and just might help Barry Bonds break the home-run record.

It was over a beer there that carpenter Sam Holman first got the challenge to build a better bat.

Today, Bonds is one of more than 300 major leaguers using those bats -- a 34-inch Rideau Crusher made of maple, which is harder and more durable than the northern ash of Louisville Slugger fame.

After homering Monday night in Los Angeles, the San Francisco Giants' outfielder needs four more in the team's final 11 games to break Mark McGwire's record of 70 set in 1998. Bonds' 67 so far are the most ever by a left-hander.

All have come off the red-handled, black-barreled bats crafted by Holman in the workshop of his Ottawa home.

A stocky man with a beer belly under his white denim overalls, the 56-year-old Holman turned the challenge from drinking buddy Bill MacKenzie -- a former baseball scout with Montreal and Colorado -- into a company that has sold 14,000 bats at $50 each this year. Bonds gets a dozen a week.

Holman soon will open a new factory -- at the site of a former bar and brothel -- that will make more than 300 bats a day. By comparison, industry giant Hillerich & Bradsby Co. turns out up to 1,500 daily, including Louisville Sluggers.

''Building factories at 56 is not exactly a wisdom sort of thing to do,'' Holman said amid the dust and clatter of construction.

His Midwest upbringing, in Kansas City and then rural South Dakota, contributes to his easygoing manner. The son of a veterinarian, Holman's baseball days ended with Little League.

After a stint in the U.S. Army, he married a Canadian woman and moved to Ottawa in 1972, later divorcing and dropping out of college before taking a job as a stagehand at the National Arts Center.

That involved working with wood and dealing with musicians and dancers. ''That's wondrous training in handling the egos and needs of professionals,'' Holman said.

A knee injury while playing basketball made him quit in 1994. Two years later, over a beer, the new inspiration came.

MacKenzie had just returned from spring training and was complaining about how bats broke too easily. ''You're a carpenter,'' he told his pal. ''You ought to do something about it.''

So Holman read books on the physics of baseball and bats, deciding that a wood with greater density than northern ash would be more durable.

Then he took a chunk of maple he had used to build a stairway bannister at home and carved his first bat.

''It sort of looked like a bat,'' he said. ''It could have been accidental.''

Originally 37 ounces, he pared it down to 33 and offered it to kids for a test. They were unable to knock the ball out of the infield, and Holman was ready to give up.

MacKenzie intervened again, telling Holman: ''We've got to get some hitters.'' They went to the Triple-A Ottawa Lynx, and balls started flying.

Within a year, Toronto Blue Jays were trying the maple bats. When Joe Carter moved on to San Francisco, he told Bonds about the harder Canadian bats.

At spring training in 1998, Holman approached Bonds, a bag of bats in hand.

''I said, 'I think Joe's been talking to you about these,''' Holman said. Bonds was skeptical until batting practice.

''He starts knocking balls all over that park, some over the center-field fence,'' Holman said. ''He came back to me in the dugout afterward and we started talking.''

They still talk regularly, but it's all about bats.

''It's a business relationship. If I weren't doing something for him and he wasn't doing something for me, we wouldn't have any relationship at all,'' Holman said. ''It's been about performance, and achieving performance is something Barry is deadly serious about.''

Bonds said he likes the maple bats because they last longer.

''They're harder,'' he said. ''Ash wood is softer wood -- it tends to split and crack. Maple gives you the opportunity -- if you have one bat you're comfortable with -- to keep it for a while.''

Bonds joked that he didn't think maple would catch on among bat makers, simply because of its superior strength.

''I think that's why a lot of bat companies don't make them, because they don't have to make as many,'' said Bonds, who numbers and signs each home-run bat.

The dozen bats a week Holman sends Bonds are 34 inches long and weigh 31 1/2 to 32 ounces. They are inscribed with ''SAM Bat'' and the logo of a bat -- the flying kind -- along with the Rideau Crusher nickname, a reference to Ottawa's famous canal.

His dealings with Bonds and other clients such as Jose Canseco and St. Louis Cardinals rookie Albert Pujols have made Holman a bit of an expert on bats and hitting.

''Baseball players will knock your socks off by what they know about wood,'' he said.

Holman's house is full of the finished products, filling racks lining all of the walls. Two are special: They bear the taped handle and signature of Bonds, perhaps the next home-run king.



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