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By Robert Mitchell
Cold air and diesel fumes rushed into the warehouse as the loading dock door rolled up. Two men put down their coffee cups and tugged on their gloves. Jim, the larger and older of the two, watched the sunlight stream across the floor, waited for the truck to finish easing up to the rubber bumpers. He put his hand on his partner's arm.
"Hold on George," he said. "Ain't got no paperwork yet. No sense pullin' it off the truck and then havin' to put it right back on if it’s wrong."
"Gotcha," George said, but went and fetched his pallet jack just the same.
There was a knock at the side door. Jim stepped over and opened it for the driver, accepted the bill of lading through the crack.
"This can't be right," Jim said. "No way we ordered this."
"Says Rigby & Fogg Baseball Bat Company right there on top," the driver said.
"Maybe so, but..."
"You gonna let me in or not? Toledo's mighty cold in February," the driver said.
"Sorry bud, come on in." Jim stepped back and let the man inside. He turned to George and leaned in. "Run fetch Carl, will ya?"
"Sure," George said. He trotted off across the warehouse, scanning the aisles until he spotted the General Manager counting corrugated boxes on a steel shelf.
"Mr. Young," George said, "Jim needs you at the dock."
Carl looked up from his clipboard. "What's the problem?"
"Don't know sir, something about the shipment that just came in."
Carl followed George back to the dock. His battered Hushpuppies and crunching knees encouraged him to let the younger man pull away. It was impossible to keep up with youth.
"What's up Jim?" he asked.
"Take a look at this. Has to be a mistake," Jim said.
Carl took the papers, glanced at them, and handed them back. "No mistake—one hundred and forty-four bamboo blanks. Go ahead and unload them. Put them over in the corner, you know, where we keep the overstock."
"Bamboo? What the hell."
"The times they are a-changing," Carl said. "That was a good call though. Way to watch."
"Thanks, will do," Jim said. "C'mon George, get to steppin'. Be right back.” Jim trotted off and began to spread the news.
It took only a few minutes for Jim to plant his seeds around the warehouse and wander over the shop as well. Paul was just about to put on his hearing protection when Jim walked up and gave him the word. Paul's face went red. He hung his ear cups on the lathe and marched across the floor, chewing on a sprig of hairs from his yellow-gray beard, swinging his arms like mad. Jim smiled in anticipation and followed a safe distance behind.
When Paul reached the dock he put up his hand. George, who was dragging a pallet stacked high with wood, barely noticed Paul in time to pull up short and avoid running over the shop master.
"Did I do something wrong?" George said.
Paul pulled out his pocket knife and cut off a corner of the shrink wrap to expose one of the long square blanks. He cut a nick in the wood and handled the flake.
"This is going to play hell with the machines!" he said. "Where's Carl?"
"I don't know..."
"What's the problem?" George asked.
"This pallet of garbage, that's the problem," Paul said. "Where's Carl?"
"Taking stock," Jim said. "Go talk to him. No sense takin' it out on the kid."
"Did Carl approve this?"
"Yep. Like I said..."
The rest of the warehouse began to gather and watch. They stood and listened, whispered among themselves as Paul became more agitated.
"Has anybody thought this through?" Paul said, getting louder. "We have been making bats out of hickory since 1910. The entire shop manual will have to be re-written."
"Look what? Every bat we make says 'World’s Finest Hickory Bat' right on the side, doesn't it? Did anybody think about that?" Paul turned to the crowd that was forming. A dozen people had gathered around, the entire combined staff of both warehouse and wood shop. "Don't you see how ridiculous this is? Bats are made out of hickory, not this...not this, whatever it is!"
"It's bamboo," Jim said.
"Bamboo? From where, Indochina?" Paul said. A few of the employees laughed. Others nodded their heads in approval and Paul picked up steam.
"We've got machines in here that are a hundred years old that still make the finest hickory bats in the world. This is going to play hell with our machines and our blades. And we're going to tear up our equipment for what? So we can tarnish our name and destroy our...our legacy? It's a disgrace!"
Carl walked up behind Paul and touched his shoulder.
"Settle down Paul," he said.
"Is this your idea?" Paul said. "Dragging in this good-for-nothing Chinese junk?"
"We're not talking about this right here in the middle of the floor," Carl said. "Come on now, step aside and let these guys do their job."
"I think not," Paul said. "I can't stand by and watch everything go to hell. I've been turning bats since you were in diapers you..."
"Careful now," Carl interrupted. "Don't spill anything you can't mop up. You're a good man, and I respect you, but you need to calm down."
Paul got out of the way but did not stop talking as he followed Carl over the door that led to the front office.
"Are we getting new machines? New engravers? You know, that shop manual on my bench is dated 1929. Did you know that?"
"I know Paul, but..."
"It's cheaper isn't it?" Paul said. "That's what it is, the bottom line."
"No, it's not cheaper," Carl said.
"Then why use it? It's always been hickory. Just hickory, from the beginning..."
The two men stood by the door, continuing to argue, until Gertie, the office manager, stuck out her head.
"Boys? Chris Jr. wants to see you in his office," she said. "Now."
"That's a great idea," Paul said.
Carl shook his head and led the way through the halls and down to the President's office. Christopher Rigby Jr. was standing in his office door, one hand on the knob, waiting for them. He was wearing a flannel shirt and his ponytail was undone, long hair hanging down. He was smiling.
"Come on in fellows," he said. "Have a seat."
"Happy to," Paul said. "Maybe you can explain what the nine hells is going on around here."
Carl and Paul took seats opposite the desks and Chris slid into his.
"What seems to be the problem?"
"Well Paul here..." Carl began.
"I can speak for myself," Paul said, and proceeded to repeat all of the objections he had voiced in the warehouse. Chris Jr. listened without speaking, hands together palm-to-palm, matched index fingers touching his lips. When Paul was finished he put his hands in his lap and leaned forward.
"How many people used to work here, in our heyday?" he asked Paul.
"Almost a hundred."
"How many now?" Chris asked.
"I don't know, maybe thirty-five," Paul said.
"Twenty-nine, if you include me," Chris said. "Why do you think that is?"
"The economy. That, and the fact that nobody wants to pay top dollar for a quality product. Everybody wants the cheap stuff. Everybody buys that made in China junk."
"No, that's not really it," Chris said. "Who are our biggest customers?"
"I can help there," Carl said. "There's the Indiana Trophy Company, and then there's..."
"I'd like Paul to answer, if you don't mind. Paul?"
"Don't rightly know," Paul said. "Why's that important?"
"Because most of our bats are sold to trophy companies, as commemorative items, or overseas. Our bats are the cut-rate bats. It's actually the Chinese, and a couple of other American companies, who are making the quality bats. And they are making them primarily out of Ash, but to a lesser extent, out of bamboo. And they are outselling us."
"So this about sales? Making more money?" Paul said. "What about tradition? Your father would never have done anything like this."
"You're right, he wouldn't have, rest his soul," Chris said. "He was a great father, a great man. But he didn't understand our deepest tradition. What is our very deepest tradition? Here's a clue. It's not making bats out of Hickory."
"Well," Carl said, "We used to have famous ball players coming in here are requesting special models. I haven't seen one of them in a while."
"You're getting warm," Chris said. "Paul, when was the last time you turned a custom job for a Major League player?"
"I don't know," he said. "Can't remember."
"Exactly," Carl said. "Hickory is too heavy. Other bat makers started using Ash, but the Emerald Borer started making Ash harder to come by. Maple works great, until it shatters that is. Bamboo is the future."
"What does that have to do with tradition?" Paul said.
"I'll ask you again -- what's our deepest tradition at this company?"
"That's a stupid question," Paul said. "We make the best damned bats in the world!"
"Do we?" Chris asked. "Do we really?"
Neither of the other men spoke.
"Okay Paul, I'll make you a deal. You don't have to touch that Bamboo if you don't want to, not for now. Go out there to the shop and start working on your existing production orders until you come up with the answer to my question. And when you do, if you still don't want to work with the Bamboo, you don't have to. Agreed?"
"Fine," Paul said, and left without another word.
Back at his lathe, Paul put on his ear protection, loaded a beautiful Hickory blank, and set the machine spinning. Chips began to fly, and as they did, he let himself fall into the groove he had been running in for the last forty years. He flipped through the orders and turned out the wooden wands to match -- bats that were smaller than regulation, bats with company logos and dedications to be carved into them, bats destined to be under glass.
As he reached for another blank with which to start a new order, he looked across the shop and saw that the automated production line was shutting down early for the day. Hundreds of bats were hanging by the handles, heavy side down, stalled on their way to the varnishing room. Gone were the days when the machines ran late this time of year as they all struggled to get ready for spring training. That was a long time ago. Back then, as soon as the ground thawed and the clay dirt was brushed, bat bags full of Rigbys had spilled out on every ball field in the country. And every player who stepped up to the pentagon had wanted a Rigby between their fists.
The things Chris Jr. had said would not leave him alone, and he began reminisce about the old days, when great players used to come in and select the very blanks of wood they liked best, when they picked their varnish colors and quibbled over eighths of an inch and tenths of an ounce in weight. When he was a kid, gripping a Rigby & Fogg in his hands, he had fantasized about being able to turn his own bat. Everybody he knew had wanted a Rigby under the tree on Christmas morning. Every batter who really needed to get on base reached into the bat bag and tried to find a Rigby.
When his orders were done it was almost quitting time, but Paul didn't care. He walked across the warehouse, slid out one of the Bamboo blanks, and took it back to his station. The wood was lighter in weight and color. He put it on the machine and got a set of plans from his bench, the dimensions of the first bat he had ever turned.
On his way to the time clock to punch out for the day, Jim stopped at his machine.
"It's quitting time," he said.
"Not for me."
"That's...hold on," he said. "We got an order for one of them Bamboo bats? Already?"
"Nope," Paul said. "Just testing it out."
"What happened to tradition?" he asked.
"You know what our deepest tradition is at this company?" Paul asked.
"Making people believe that, just maybe, they stand a chance of hitting a home run," Paul said. “We don’t sell bats. We sell hope.”
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