SKOWHEGAN, Maine — He has baseball in his veins and wood shavings all over his body.
Jesse LaCasse, the owner of LaCasse Bat Company, is in some respects a modern-day Paul Bunyan, chopping down trees in the forest.
“I wish I could take that title, but I swing more bats than I do axes,” he says. “As far as chopping my own trees, unfortunately, I use a chainsaw instead of an ax.”
LaCasse, 32, a former local baseball star, is all wood all the time. He puts his own homemade maple syrup in his coffee. His favorite sound is the crack of the bat. His passion is making baseball bats by hand, from scratch.
When he gets home from work, his kids won’t let him in the house until he jumps in the lake. His wife, Anna, complains about wood shavings in the washing machine.
But — knock on wood — there are plenty of new orders to fill and so little time.
“Let’s head out in the woods and get some baseball bats,” he says with gusto.
Thirty minutes later, LaCasse shouts, “Timber!” and with a groan and a last twist, a 50-foot ash tree hits the moss-covered forest floor. A tree has died but dozens of baseball bats are about to be born.
. . .
The LaCasse Bat Company is almost a one-man operation from tree to batter up. Because of an increased volume in orders, LaCasse also buys some logs from a local logging company. He also enlists the aid of David White, a local sawmill owner, to cut the wood into workable chunks.
But in his downtown factory, he is all alone. The strapping 6-foot-2-inch Maine native can make a baseball bat in 15 minutes, all of them as different as snowflakes.
He has been doing this since 2006, first only for himself, then for teammates, and now for Little Leagues and amateur leagues everywhere.
He wears goggles and sometimes a mask while working on his 4-foot lathe. Behind him is a 2-foot pyramid of wood shavings. Usually it inches even higher, until local chicken farmers come and cart it away for their coops.
LaCasse was a baseball standout at Saint Joseph’s College of Maine and dreamed of playing for the Red Sox, but arm injuries diverted him. He played and coached several years of professional baseball in Germany, meeting his future wife at a game. They now have two kids and live on a lakefront house they built together.
A carpenter since he was 14, LaCasse started making his own baseball bats while playing in the Portland Twilight League in 2006.
“Just from being a hitting fanatic, I needed to make my own bats,” he says. “It caught on quickly. A lot of my friends wanted their own custom bats.”
While he was in Germany in 2010, he bought a lathe on eBay for $400 and hand-crafted and colored bats to be used in the Senior League Baseball World Series.
When he returned, the batman found a batcave. He works in the basement of a century-old red brick building in Skowhegan, left to him by his grandmother.
His father sells his bats at LaCasse Shoe Repair and Sales down the street.
“He is the top LaCasse retailer in the world,” says LaCasse with a laugh.
‘As old-fashioned as it gets’
At the factory, everything is old school.
“This is as old-fashioned as it gets,” says LaCasse, selecting a billet of wood that has already been heated in his homemade kiln for five weeks at 130 degrees to reach the recommended 8 percent moisture level.
He uses four tools to carve the bat. Shavings fly like sparklers from his hands. In a matter of minutes, a block of wood is a baseball bat. But things didn’t always go smoothly in the beginning.
“I’ve sliced two fingers from my knife,” he says, flexing his fingers.
He had a bat spin wildly off the lathe, heading for his face.
“That one I luckily got out of the way,’’ he says. “Smashed the wall in front of me, bounced all the way across the room. It’s a very dangerous machine. ‘’
At the other end of the factory, there is a dipping area where bats are varnished or colored and hung to dry. There is also an old linotype press alphabet used for personalizing bats. LaCasse loads it letter by letter.
When he finishes sanding a bat, he burns the family name and moose logo on it at 1,200 degrees.
“I love that smell,” he says.
The factory also includes a batting tee, netting, and bucket of balls for custom appointments. In a unique kind of hit-and-run, bat adjustments are made while the customer waits.
“I turn a bat they like, then I let them come over here and swing off the tee,” he says. “That allows the hitter to figure out if the bat is too top-heavy, if it needs better balance or to change the handle thickness or the actual knob.
“To me, it’s the best way to get the perfect bat in a player’s hand.”
Sometimes the players can be difficult.
“Hitters are the most picky, superstitious guys out there,” he says. “Baseball players are very vague on what they want. I’ve had them walk out of here with three bats when I only charge them for one or two because I want to make the customer happy.”
LaCasse says the Maine woods provide the best timber.
“We’re known for our maple and ash because of our very cold climates, a cold winter, and a warm summer,” he said. “You need those drastic changes of temperature to produce harder wood.”
Says treatment by MLB is unfair
Business is improving because of safety issues with metal bats. Newer metal bats are now being regulated to perform like wood.
LaCasse saves the choicest cuts of wood for his bats, but the rest is also put to use.
He makes mini-bats, mostly for women.
“Mostly for protection,” he says.
And fish clubs, mostly for men.
“There’s no better way to kill a fish,” he says. “One little smack to the head and the fish is dead.”
The public, says LaCasse, thinks bats are whittled by knife because of Robert Redford’s character in “The Natural.”
“I’ve never whittled a bat in my life,” he says.
But he can still swing one.
Last fall, at a Portland Sea Dogs fan promotion, LaCasse, wearing work pants and boots, grabbed a big-barreled 33-inch bat he hand-crafted and strode to the plate at Hadlock Field. He sent the last pitch he saw soaring over their Green Monster, winning season tickets for two.
“I was hoping they’d sign me,” he says with a laugh.
But if he can’t get to The Show, he hopes someday one of his bats will.
“If someone could just take a bat I made from a tree that I cut up to the plate in the big leagues, ideally it would be the next best thing,” he says.
Right now, that is a long shot. LaCasse can’t afford the $13,000 registration fee and $10 million umbrella insurance that Major League Baseball requires from its bat suppliers. That may not make him as hopping mad as George Brett was in the pine tar incident, but it does annoy him.
“It’s not fair, no,” says LaCasse. “A professional player should be able to swing whatever bat he wants. What he walks up to the plate with shouldn’t be just a marketing item. It should be a tool to excel at the game of baseball. It’s difficult for a small-time company to get to that point.”
‘I’d love to get Big Papi in here’
Major League Baseball says there are 30 approved bat suppliers for the 2012 season, and some of the money from them goes for bat safety research.
LaCasse says the big bat companies make a good product, but some major leaguers get a box of bats and only use a couple because they don’t feel right.
“I’d love to get Big Papi in here,” he says. “I’d make him a bat he could hit bombs with.”
In the Red Sox clubhouse, David Ortiz says he uses every bat shipped to him.
“I grab two for every game,” he says. “I use them all. They are exactly the same.”
LaCasse says he can fine-tune the balance, which he claims computer-generated bats can’t.
“I can make it unique to you,” he says.
He currently coaches baseball at Winslow (Maine) High School, where almost all of his players swing wood.
He hates the ping of a metal bat.
“It’s annoying,” he says. “Parents come up to me after a game and say, ‘Coach, it’s really good to hear that crack of the bat from the wood.’ ”
After testing a new bat with some laser line drives, the bat maker holds it at arm’s length and admires it for just a moment. Then he smiles.
“That’s a nice piece of ash,” he says.