By Brian Swartz
Weekly Staff Editor
SKOWHEGAN, Maine — The strains of “Put Me in Coach” should echo through 4 Madison Avenue as Jesse LaCasse weaves his magic on a lathe.
Here in a sub-level woodworking shop accessed by a steel door just feet from busy Madison Avenue (aka Route 201), LaCasse holds in his hands a 50-inch wood billet. Envisioning what a Boy of Summer desires, LaCasse then “releases” from this billet — ash, rock maple, perhaps yellow birch — its “inner bat,” a hand- or lathe-turned creation that will deliver the power of Maine-grown hardwood to a leather-cased baseball somewhere around the world.
He will “free” bats from billets throughout the day in this shop where wood chips cover the floor around the lathes and customers try their skills in the batting cage. LaCasse loves hearing a wood bat connect with a baseball, and now, years after he played baseball as a youth, the bats appearing on Maine ball fields often bear the LaCasse Bats logo.
“My dad would say my love of the game came from hitting when I was young,” LaCasse said. A 1998 graduate of Madison High School, he majored in sports management at St. Joseph’s College in Standish and “played baseball all four years” there as a starter, “mostly at first base.”
After college he and a friend attended “open tryouts held for players under [age] 25” at various locations in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. “We never got picked up” by a major league team, LaCasse said.
However a German team, the Neunkirchen Nightmares, picked him up in 2004; LaCasse played baseball in Germany in 2004-05. He also played left field for the Bonn Capitals.
Played to American rules, professional German baseball encompasses “46 games or so” from March to September, LaCasse said. German players “have intensity, and they are organized.” He assessed their “playing skills” as equivalent to “low minor [league] or high college” in the United States.
While playing in Germany, LaCasse met his wife, Anna. They settled in Skowhegan where their 6- and 4-year-old sons “like to hit” baseballs, he said. “”One is a lefty and one is a righty. They’ve got good swings already.”
During his teens, LaCasse learned carpentry skills while working at Ouellette Builders in East Madison. An avid baseball player — he coaches the Winslow High School varsity baseball squad and plays men’s league baseball — LaCasse “was tired of breaking other companies’ bats.”
Launching LaCasse Bats in 2006, he started making bats from ash, rock (sugar) maple, and yellow birch, hardwood species preferred for their surface strength and flexibility.
“Ash has been used in baseball bats since the beginning” of the sport, LaCasse said, and the legendary Barry Bonds “made rock maple popular” while establishing several MLB hitting records. Yellow birch is gaining popularity with hitters.
“Hitters like the fast-growing ash and maple; there is less grain to it,” LaCasse said.
Buying 150-160 logs annually from the Anson-based N.F. Luce Inc. and sometimes obtaining logs from tree-trimming companies, he prefers “to get trees from different areas.” Depending on soil nutrients, sunlight, and other factors, trees of the same species grow differently sometimes only short distances apart, LaCasse explained, but no matter where a suitable tree grows, hitters desire its wood.
“All bat wood comes from New England and Canada,” LaCasse said. “The reason for that is the extreme temperature range in this region; cold and heat in extremes make for harder wood by putting trees under stress.”
Purchased logs are cut into the smaller 50-inch “billets” or “pieces” that ultimately become baseball bats. LaCasse can dry billets in any of three kilns; located off site from his shop are two dehumidifier kilns, one capable of drying 500 billets, the other capable of drying 250 billets. Each kiln takes five weeks to dry a load of billets.
Using “plans I found in an online book,” LaCasse recently constructed in his shop a vacuum kiln that can hold 11 billets. Equipped with an electric heating element, this kiln can dry billets in two to three days by raising the temperature to 120 degrees, a temperature that “opens the pores and vaporizes the water in the wood,” LaCasse said.
Before turning a bat, LaCasse trims a 50-inch billet to 37 inches, a measurement that provides sufficient length for producing a standard-sized bat. He then mounts the billet either on a “fully automatic” Laguna CNC lathe or on the Jet lathe used for making hand-turned bats.
According to LaCasse, the Laguna lathe can turn any of 15 bat models that he has designed; once LaCasse enters the appropriate information into the computer-controlled lathe, “I can make a thousand [bats] of the same model.”
Hand-turning requires his full attention. As the Jet lathe spins a billet, LaCasse trims wood from it with his sharpened knives. Wood chips fly fast and furiously as he patiently sculpts a rounded bat from a square-edged rectangular billet.
Among the finishing touches, LaCasse patiently sands a bat; he often forms an “end cup” in a bat’s barrel. “Pretty much all big barrel bats are cupped now, especially in maple,” he explained while shaping an end cup in a maple bat.
“I have people who request heavy bats,” he said, carefully examining the hand-turned bat for imperfections. Finding none, he set the bat aside.
LaCasse only manufactures bats for which he has orders. Focusing “on the proper weight per bat,” he calculates the standard “minus 3 ratio” of a bat’s length to its width. For example, a 33-inch bat would weigh 30 ounces.
In the past LaCasse made perhaps 500 bats a year; business has substantially increased, and he anticipates selling about 800 bats by just this August.
“The amateur [baseball] market is so big with wood right now,” LaCasse said. “People love the integrity of the wood, the crack of the bat.” American Legion leagues in Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Vermont have switched from metal to wood bats, and “New York [American Legion] has banned metal altogether,” he said. Some college teams are switching to wood bats, too.
LaCasse estimated that sales “are 50/50 team and individual orders,” and his bats know no boundaries. This year he has sold bats to teams in England, Germany, and New Zealand.
“The typical order for a Legion team is 20-25 bats,” often in 31-to-33-inch lengths, LaCasse said.
He fills many Christmas orders during the fall. “College teams are ordering bats by Jan. 20” each year, he said, “and the summer leagues follow.”
He would like to crack one particular market. “In the majors, the players provide their own bats,” he said. “Only 33 bat manufacturers are MLB-approved.
“It would be a big job for me to go to the pros,” which require a $10,000 annual fee and a $10 million liability insurance policy, LaCasse said. “It’s a dream, but I’m pretty full time between making bats and coaching baseball.
“I want to expand into team orders in New England and across the country,” he said.
For more information about LaCasse Bats, log onto LaCasseBats.com.