(KPIX) – Last week Reds slugger Yasiel Puig flailed at a nasty pitch thrown my Mets ace pitcher Jacob DeGrom. In a fit of frustration, Puig pounded the bat over his thigh and snapped it like a twig.
While many in the crowd at Citi Field cheered the feat of strength, Gary Malec was covering his eyes as Puig destroyed his creation.
A few years ago Malec would have given anything for a major league baseball player to break his bat in a major league game. That’s how far Birdman Bats has grown since KPIX first profiled the startup company back in 2017.
Birdman began like many small businesses do – out of their San Francisco house. Their basement was draped with the birch wood ready to be shipped across the world. Business was conducted upstairs, often times on the couch or in the dining area – wherever there was space.
“I think it’s that total startup culture,” Malec said. “We wake up, have our coffee, watch the Price is Right and then get to work.”
In the last few years, Birdman has been able to spread its wings. All production has been moved out of the house to a shop close by. Their growth is based on one value that all the stakeholders seem to embody – make baseball fun.
They are a group of friends, some of them former players, crafting a product that’s representative of baseball’s younger, more expressive generation. Each of their bats has the funky hand-drawn logo and they can be customized with every color of the rainbow. They see themselves as artists instead of just bat makers.
“I have a new-found appreciation for all the hard work it takes to turn a bat,” former big leaguer Lars Anderson said. “Maybe I wouldn’t have tomahawked my bat into the clubhouse door so many times.”
Most of Birdman’s employees never reached the big leagues which is why securing a license to sell bats on baseball’s biggest stage was so important.
“I still can’t believe it,” Malec said as he and four other staffers stood behind the batting cage at the Oakland Coliseum last month.
For Malec, the last two years have been all about raising the capital to pay for the steep MLB licensing and insurance fees. A letter of recommendation was sent to the league office from Philadelphia Phillies manager Gabe Kapler – and overnight they became one of about 30 companies in the show.
“We’re just feet away from the players,” Malec said during batting practice. “And if we have the gall, we’ll just holler at them, “Hey, wanna try a bat?’”
It’s the comprehensive small business service they hope can attract players who have been swinging products from the established mega-corporations like Louisville Slugger. It’s rare for the person who handmade the bat also act as the representative in the field – not the case for Birdman.
On this day in Oakland, Malec and his crew delivered Hunter Pence a bat that was stained with coffee because of Pence’s love of java.
“He liked that we did that and he ordered more… dozens I think,” Malec said.
Pence discovered Birdman last season when he was with the Giants. He took the bats to winter ball in the Dominican Republic and discovered they had hits in them.
“The etched a Luigi face on the knob,” Pence said of the customization features. “It made me feel special grabbing the bat, that’s for sure”
But finding traction at a big league bat rack can be challenging. Players might try a Birdman once or twice, but not go all in.
Puig has been a different story. He got a basehit with a Birdman the first time he took one to the batter’s box. For Puig it was just a hit, for Birdman, it was the beginning of a new chapter for their business.
“That was our holy cow moment,” Malec said.
Puig ended up hitting five home runs in 24 hours last September and became a believer in the wood.
“It might have landed one in Cooperstown,” Malec said with a smile. “Which is an unbelievable honor.”
The big leagues are just a small part of Birdman’s goals. They’ve carved out a bigger niche in amateur baseball where the colors can go wild.
Currently the MLB only allows a small amount of paints and stains that can be used in a game.
Malec anticipates the rules will be changing soon, and Birdman will be ready to soar when they do.