As the fourth pro-certified baseball bat supplier in Canada, ABO Baseball in Tillsonburg has been a whirlwind of activity in the last two weeks.
“It’s been pretty crazy, trying to catch up,” said ABO Baseball’s Trevor Oakes. “It’s all surreal still. Like yesterday (Jan. 30), got home from Wisconsin at 3 a.m., slept for a couple hours, then basically had to get back to it.
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That meant contacting coaches and setting up spring training meetings.
“So that’s all I did (Thursday), I contacted coaches. It’s kind of crazy to think that three days ago I was just in my shop and now I’m talking to Major League Baseball coaches, which is like a dream come true really.”
The next step is to see his bats being used by professionals.
“I told my kids, ‘I’m going to cry that day.’ That will be the day when it all sinks in. The thought kind of blows me away a little bit. But at the same time, I’m so busy I don’t have time to enjoy it. So I can’t wait till that one day where I can just take off and just soak it all in.”
Deb Simmonds, local slo-pitch player and Oakes’ sister-in-law, joined the ABO business as co-owner in September 2019 and the ABO Baseball facility on Tillson Street opened Nov. 15, 2019.
“When I wanted to design this (facility), I knew I couldn’t do it alone,” said Oakes. “So she was a perfect candidate to bring aboard. I’m thankful for her just as much as she’s thankful for me, so it’s been a good relationship so far with the business. Realistically… this business started in September. I knew how to make bats, but that’s it. Now, with her and (Dave) her husband’s help, the push that they gave, I kind of understood this is almost like a brand new business. Let’s start here and we’ll roll with it.
“We kind of divvied it up recently where we have two parts to this business really. We have a facility (with batting cages, Hit Trax and merchandising) and we have bats. I’m going to head up the bats and Deb, my business partner, is going to head up the facility. That’s what we’re kind of hashing out now, what’s going to go where and all that stuff.”
Oakes grew up playing minor baseball in Tillsonburg until he was about 16. He got into slo-pitch when he was 25, playing in competitive leagues, as well as the local men’s league until about three years ago when he switched to Woodstock to play closer to work. At 40, he’s still into slo-pitch and might be returning to the Tillsonburg Men’s Slo-Pitch League this spring.
“I don’t know how much time I’m going to have,” he smiled.
“We’re hoping to employ a couple people to help make bats. Our thoughts were… start this up, get pro approved, then I would kind of switch into a sales department. Then we’d have people making bats, and I would come in and help whenever I could. So that’s ultimately our goal is to make this into a mini factory where we have employees doing what we need them to do, having a good time and making bats…”
Oakes also got back into ‘hardball’ playing two seasons for the Tillsonburg Red Sox men’s baseball team, then over-35 with the Tillsonburg Old Sox. And that’s how he got started in bat-making in 2017.
“I broke some bats – broke two bats that one summer.”
Refusing to buy another bat, he decided it would be a better investment buying a lathe and making his own.
“So I bought a lathe on Kijiji and I went to Townsend Lumber. The piece of ash they sold me had a big knot in middle, but I finished it anyway,” he said, holding up his first full-size, wood-turned bat. “This took me about an hour-and-a-half. I’m still proud of it, but you would never be able to use this. It was just to be able to say I could make a bat.
“When I started it was about an hour-and-a-half, and now it’s about 12 minutes from wood-in to wood-out, sanded.”
From that first ash bat, he returned to the lathe to make more, switching to maple and yellow birch. His first efforts weren’t necessarily better than what he had been using, although he did get some “good whacks” with it. It was more about feeling good about making it. The quality improved when he changed suppliers.
“It wasn’t until we switched our wood supply… and once we got our good wood supply, then I was thinking these are ‘just as good.’ We’re on our third supplier now. It was Nov. 2018 when we went to our newest supplier, and that’s when we were like ‘this wood is ridiculously good.'”
Contacts were developed in the Intercounty Baseball League (IBL), and ABO sponsored two teams including the London Majors.
“Cleveland Brownlee was the one guy we kind of connected with – he’s a slugger hitter and I would say basically he’s the face of the IBL, definitely the Majors. So it was a huge partnership for us. By the end of the season, we had eight of nine starters on the London Majors because there was so much good pop off them. When Cleveland started smashing the ball around, people said, ‘we want some of those.'”
That mindset is what he wants to take to Arizona. Get one player – or more – then just wait and let the bats do the talking. Then word hopefully spreads.
“This year we’re working with the (IBL) Brantford Red Sox, kind of on a sponsorship. These guys are buying a ton of bats. They’re only going to swing ABO Baseball, nothing else. That’s huge.
“I love going to IBL games. I’ll just go there to watch a game, I don’t care who’s playing I just want to watch baseball at this level.
“When I started this, that’s what I said. ‘All I want to do is make baseball bats and watch baseball.’ I remember the first time I did a tournament demo, I had a tent set up, sat down, baseball games were going on, and I’m thinking ‘This is it, this is my gig now, this is amazing.’ And every time I do that, it doesn’t matter what level of baseball, it’s such a good day. I’m just hanging out, the sun’s shining, baseball’s playing, this is amazing.”
Oakes recently added an automated lathe for greater production – while retaining the custom experience option – but initially it was all done on his manually-operated lathe.
“Basically, I would say 95 per cent of the bats we’ve sold I’ve made by hand.”
From December 2018 to December 2019, he estimated that to be around 1,300 bats, with another 1,000 bats in 2018 and ‘maybe a few hundred’ in 2017.
“It started in April (2017) and once summer hit, that’s when I started seeing sales going up. It was basically ball players that I knew in Oshawa and Toronto and London. At the end of the year is when we started doing bat demos in facilities like this and that’s when things kind of ramped up. The first boom, it was like wildfire.”
Heavy cell phone usage prompted him to set up a website.
“That transfer was so hard – to get people to go online instead of just talking to me. I don’t mind, but it was just too many. Business had scaled so much that I couldn’t answer everybody. Now I have a system where it’s online, I print the order, and that’s my build list.”
Just last week, when the media frenzy began after receiving his ‘pro certification’ he was getting hundreds of calls/messages – from people looking for jobs, wood suppliers, and people asking him to be a guest speaker.
“The problem is… is that I can’t pay you yet. I pay me, and I pay Riley (Balazs) – Riley’s kind of my apprentice guy – and Deb (Simmonds), but I can’t give you $100k a year. I think I had 75 people reach out within the last couple of weeks about some sort of job. So it’s been a crazy week.”
Checking his phone to find the exact date he received pro certification – it was January 21st – he smiles seeing another email asking for a part-time job.
About a year-and-a-half into making bats, when he was getting orders from California, Texas and Florida and then Kuwait and Australia, he started making his five-year plan – within five years he wanted to be making bats for big league players.
“Obviously my dream is to get some big names swinging these bats – and it will happen,” said Oates.
“Everybody says, ‘you’re going to be famous.’ I don’t want to be famous, I want the bats to be famous. I want the bats to be known everywhere more than people know me. I’ll talk to everybody all day long about baseball and baseball bats, but it’s not me. We’re just making them.
“I’ve always said, ‘Everybody should leave a mark.’ And I feel like this is my mark. So no matter what happens, this will always be here and people will know ABO Baseball and will know my kids were a big part of it.”
If you play MLB: The Show, a video game for the PlayStation console system (and Xbox and Nintento going forward after December 2019), in the future you will be able to select ABO bats.
“So now, no matter what happens, I can go back to (2021) and select our bats. That part to me is more exciting than a lot of this.”
Of course, that probably won’t compare to when an ABO bat is actually used in the majors.
“Last year, we put bats in the hands of a player. He was in the batting cages, and he was getting a 2 mph faster exit velo off our bats than his brand.”
But the competition is fierce. One of his main competitors is owned by an international giant worth billions. The competition, even in Canada, is well-established. But Oakes is confident ABO bats will find a market.
“It’s hard to say what makes your bat better. I feel like our wood is good. We only buy pro-stock certified wood. You can’t change the regulations and the size – it (the bat) has to be in this shape, it has to be one piece of wood. But our price point, and what we offer – player experiences – is kind of our standout. The custom experience we offer, where players can come in and I’ll make a bat right in front of them, that’s something that nobody really offers. The player can come in, pick out their own wood, and side-by-side I’ll make that bat for that player right then and there. Nobody offers that. I don’t know of one other bat maker that does it. I don’t know how many bat-makers make bats by hand, it’s probably a very, very low number.
“There’s a lot to it, but the wood that we buy is already pretty good. I was never worried about the wood content. This wood, it’s the highest level of veneer wood you can buy and that’s why it’s so expensive.”
There are 37 pro certified bat suppliers this year for the majors. Last year there were 35. But there are hundreds of ball players, just in Major League Baseball (1,200-plus) alone, and every team has a minor league system.
“I think what it’s going to come down to is good wood and being able to converse with them. Basically if you have good wood, you’re going to have good results. That’s why no one really says where they are getting their wood from. It’s a big secret.
Oakes leaves for Arizona later this month where he has eight team meetings lined up, including the Chicago White Sox, Chicago Cubs, and Kansas City Royals.
“We’re still going for the other seven.
“The very first day I’m there I have a meeting with the White Sox. They’re going to hit our bats in BP (batting practice). I can’t wait. It will be exciting, especially in a game situation. BP will be exciting, but if it’s in a game I know I’ll be nervous. I always am, even if it’s a Little Leaguer.”
He recalls a 15U national tournament in Kitchener when a player from Barrie bought a bat – during his game.
“Two batters later, while his mom’s still paying for the bat, he’s on deck with it. And I swear, he hit the biggest triple I’ve ever seen. The whole team was going crazy. Bat sales that day were amazing! The whole team came over and bought all of the bats. Nothing better could have happened, it was just perfect.”
In Florida, he has plans to meet with the Toronto Blue Jays.
“They might be our only visit to Florida, see them and come home. We’ll see, maybe we’ll tour around. Florida’s a little more spread out.”
CUSTOM MADE BATS
For the non-pros, custom design can be important.
“I will always offer that custom experience. I think it’s kind of cool, at any level, especially now being pro preferred, these kids come in here and get a bat made by someone that’s pro approved. That’s kind of cool. I will always offer that, for sure. Just because, I like doing it. My happy place is with a podcast on and just making as many bats as I can make. If I can do it for six hours, I’m a happy man right there.
“The other thing I offer is that there is no custom design limit,” said Oakes. “If you want polka dots on a bat, I’ll do it for you.”
His daughter, Audrey, has already ordered a own custom-made pink bat for her first season of tee-ball this summer.
And yes, the ‘A’ in ABO comes from Audrey.
“ABO Baseball is basically my kids’ names, Audrey and Brandon, and Oakes. I thought that was kind of cool.”
He did an internet search and was surprised to learn Abo was a winged animal (Glauconycteris poensis).
“It’s a bat… an actual bat. I thought, ‘well, this is the name.’ It’s pretty crazy but everything kind of worked out.
“My kids are super happy. Audrey’s still kind of young, but Brandon, he’s five now, so he kind of gets the excitement that I’m feeling. I keep telling him, ‘Hopefully this year you’ll see these on TV’ and that will be your initials. So he’s pretty pumped about that. Ultimately, that’s going to make my day, when I look at his face… It’s not about the money or anything else. It’s cool to have a tool that you made on TV, but seeing him react ‘that’s my name, that’s my initial’, that is more important to me.”
In April 2019, Oakes decided to leave his full-time job at Toyota – long before opening the ABO Baseball facility, long before becoming pro certified – to make bats full-time.
“It’s the ballsiest thing I’ve ever done, but it is what it is. My wife just started working again after a few years as a stay-at-home mom. I couldn’t do both jobs anymore. It was two full-time jobs. I was at Toyota 10-11 hours a day, then I’d come home and I’d be out in my shop until like midnight. Go to bed, get up at 4 a.m. and do the whole thing over again.
“It was a dream of mine to open a facility in Tillsonburg but I didn’t know when it was going to happen.”
Longer term, if the business continues to grow, they would consider an expansion, keeping the Tillson Street facility for bat production, but opening a new batting-cage or open field facility.
He still has long hours – but he’s working for himself and his family.
“Mondays, Fridays, I’m here from 8:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. I’ve always said, I know that all of this hard work – and that everybody says the same thing, that hard work pays off – if I put my time in now, I can take it off later. In two years I want Riley to be running this shop and have a guy under him. And I don’t have to be here. I can be at home spending time with family or whatever.
“It’s a grind right now, but it’s necessary. If you’re not going to go anywhere or work hard to get there, then what’s the point of doing anything? So yeah, days are long but it will be worth it in the end. I think once we get this rolling and we let the dust settle and we get people making bats and doing sales, then we can have a structured business and it will just be easy for everybody.”
And when it’s ‘easier,’ what next? Maybe a new hobby?
“I did wood shop in school one year, it wasn’t my thing,” Oakes admitted. “I’m more of a machinist. I always said – and it will happen – I want to buy a forge and makes swords and knives. I can’t wait for that.”