Dustin Pedroia once lost his luggage on a Red Sox road trip, his suitcase disappearing in an airport somewhere along the way. But the black duffel bag that held a dozen of his bats made it to the ballpark.
For that Pedroia was grateful. Clothes can be replaced, but a bat he feels comfortable swinging requires hours of painstaking preparation.
“It’s like we’re doctors the way we treat our bats,” teammate David Ortiz said. “You’re always doing something to make sure it’s right for the game.”
Like carpenters or painters, players use assorted products to get the desired result. There are sprays, tapes, pine tar, rubber grips, and one substance invented by a player who retired in 1982. Sometimes even dirt will do.
“You have to go to the plate feeling comfortable,” first baseman Mike Napoli said. “My job is to get a hit, and the bat has to feel right for me to do that. So, yeah, I make sure that it does.”
Among the Red Sox position players, there’s an ongoing dialogue about bats and how best to prepare them. Ortiz, the most experienced hitter on the team, is considered somewhat of an authority. But all ideas are welcome.
Last year, during the team’s run to the World Series, a company in Utah that specializes in bicycle accessories sent rolls of bat tape to the clubhouse hoping the players would try it. Ortiz did, and soon half the team followed suit.
The company, Lizard Skins, took its bicycle handlebar tape and adapted it to bats three years ago. It introduced the new product to trade shows and conventions before getting one major leaguer, catcher John Buck, to try it.
“It kind of snowballed from there,” said Lizard Skins general manager Brad Barker. “We wanted to branch out into team sports, and baseball players liked it. It’s like a grip for a tennis racquet but for a baseball bat.”
Barker targeted star players, sending boxes of the tape to their clubhouses. In time he noticed that Ortiz was using it.
“I tried it and it felt more comfortable to me,” Big Papi said. “I didn’t need pine tar any more.”
Ortiz even gave up spitting onto his batting gloves before stepping up to the plate.
“People thought I was being superstitious,” he said. “It wasn’t that. I just wanted something else on my batting gloves. But now I didn’t have to do that.”
By Game 3 of the World Series, nearly the entire team was using the product. Ortiz favored a lime green color that matched his batting gloves. Other players used color schemes from their college teams or camouflage patterns.
That Ortiz hit five home runs and drove in 13 runs during the postseason only increased the interest.
“Everybody started going crazy about it,” Ortiz said. “It was on television and people noticed.”
Now 29 of the 30 teams — all but the Philadelphia Phillies — have at least one player using Lizard Skins.
“Once David used it, other players were asking about it,” Barker said. “I got a call one day to overnight a package to them because the Red Sox players needed more. It was fun for us to see that take off the way it did. Now we’re getting calls from teams all the time.”
If one of the Sox players needs a new grip, Clay Buchholz is the man to see. The righthanded pitcher is so adept at wrapping bats with just the right amount of tension and thickness that hitters seek him out.
“It started last season,” said Buchholz. “I saw Nap let a bat slip and I found some of those Lizard Skin grips and wrapped one of his bats and gave it to him. He went deep the next day.
“Then he gave me seven bats the next day and said, ‘Wrap these for me.’ That’s how it started.”
Buchholz placed an order with Lizard Skins late last season. When Barker noticed, he sent extras along for free. Buchholz since has spoken to Barker about the correct technique and which kind of tape might suit a certain player.
“They all have preferences,” said Buchholz. “Jonny Gomes liked it super, super tight. I did a bunch of his bats. Nap and David, I know how they like their bats. It’s something fun to do. Let’s face it, we have a lot of time in our hands in this sport.”
Christian Vazquez, Brock Holt, Xander Bogaerts, and Mookie Betts all use the grips.
Some of the players combine the tape with another substance. There’s pine tar, which is literally boiled-down wood and sticks to everything. Or something called Manny Mota Stick, which resembles a glue stick. Mota, a former major league outfielder, invented it decades ago. The Red Sox also use Tiger Stick, a similar product.
All are designed to give the hitters better contact with their bat and added confidence at the plate.
“I get why the hitters think that way,” said Buchholz. “Baseball is such a feel sport, and if the bat or the ball feels good in your hands, you’re more mentally prepared.”
When he gets a bat from Buchholz, Napoli uses super glue to make sure the end of the tape doesn’t slip. Then he slaps on some Tiger Stick.
“The grip holds the sticky stuff pretty well,” Napoli said. “It looks messy sometimes but it feels right. Every once in a while I’ll clean my bats up and start over again.”
Pedroia prefers a more traditional method, at least at first, as he wraps his bat handles with black athletic tape. Then he adds pine tar and rosin along with some swipes from a Tiger Stick. He also sprays his bat with Tuf-Skin, a solution used by trainers to help tape adhere better to skin.
In all, Pedroia could have four or five different substances on his bat at any given time.
But there’s a good reason behind all the goo. In 2012, Pedroia’s bottom hand slipped off the bat when he took a swing and he sprained his right thumb. That led to his going on the disabled list.
“I’ve always been real careful since then,” said Pedroia. “I’d rather have the bat be too sticky than not sticky enough. I take a pretty big swing.”
Pedroia doesn’t have a particular method for treating his bat. He just knows when it feels right. He often can be found sitting in the dugout before games patting down the bat with a rosin bag or adding a fresh coat of pine tar.
“There’s no secret recipe,” he said. “I just fire stuff on there.”
Napoli has watched the process in person and finds it amusing.
“I’m pretty particular, but nothing like Pedey is,” Napoli said. “But he’s different in every way about a lot of things.”
The last-place Red Sox have scored the fewest runs in the American League this season and are hitting .242. Maybe they need to clean their bats and try something new.
“Trust me, hitting is hard,” Ortiz said. “But if the bat feels good, we think it’s a little easier. It’s part of the game that people don’t really see but it’s important to us.”