by Bob Zaruta, President/CEO, NWIRC
Photo of NWIRC tour at BWP Bats in Brookville PA
(L-R) Josh Johnson, BWP Bats President, and Bob Zaruta, NWIRC President/CEO, tour the BWP Bats facility in Brookville, PA

Yes! It’s the middle of spring and summer is next in the lineup. Temperatures are rising, cardinals are singing, orioles are whistling, things are opening, and the words “play ball” are soothing. Baseball has forever been called America’s national pastime. Granted, some would say that America’s pastime is now a sport in the fall. I can relate having coached football. But for me, and for many, it’s about right now! It’s about right now passing time differently than time has passed over the last year. It’s about going out to a ballgame, kicking back in the bleachers, and taking in all the sights and sounds of the crowd. It’s about hearing familiar tunes from the organ, munching on some peanuts and cracker jacks, and enjoying a beer and hot dog. It’s about hearing the ball crack of the bat and sail over the fence.

But my excitement for baseball right now goes well beyond my eagerness to pass time differently. You see, recently I had a chance to get back to something else that I did and enjoyed before the pandemic. You may recall I started to visit with small manufacturers in small towns across our 13 counties of northwestern Pennsylvania. I enjoyed so much meeting with the business owners and their employees, hearing their stories and writing about their unique products and services. Well, my pent-up visits are no longer. My first appearance at the plate this spring was BWP Bats in Brookville – and I hit a home run!

Who is BWP Bats?

BWP manufactures customized wooden baseball bats used by players at all levels from the major league to minor league, from legion league to little league, and even T-Ball. Professional players like journeyman and two-time World Series champion Johnny Damon, Justin Morneau who retired from Twins and was a 2020 Hall of Fame inductee, and Devon Mesoraco, a local standout from Punxsutawney High School who played for the Cincinnati Reds and New York Mets and was a MLB All-star in 2014 – are just a few known to swing their bats. Timber that was expertly crafted at the company’s state of the art manufacturing facility in Brookville and that proudly displays the BWP logo. In fact, I saw it for myself on an overhead mounted television set during my tour at BWP. I was with company owners Josh Johnson and Kevin Gnacinski as they were demonstrating their computer-controlled laser that was etching a player’s signature and jersey number into the barrel of a bat. An early season televised game was underway between the Boston Red Sox and Minnesota Twins. Miguel Sano for the Twins was at the plate and there it was, the BWP scripted style logo clearly on display even through snowflakes falling in Minnesota at the time. I’ll be looking for that special mark all the time now when I’m watching a game on TV, or when I am in stands at UPMC Park in Erie when the SeaWolves, the double-A affiliate of the Detroit Tigers, are playing at home.

Josh and Kevin bought the company last November and it did not take me long during my tour to realize that these two entrepreneurs know their business and they have very specialized and complementary skill sets. Josh graduated from Ridgway High in 2001 and was drafted as a catcher by the Minnesota Twins. While Josh’s major league experience and deep bench of contacts helps, so does the experience of working during the off seasons in those early years learning every step of the process and how to make a great bat. In fact, his first experience with BWP was while in high school when he would get bats from the company to test in games and to provide feedback for improvement. Josh shared that only 42 companies are approved suppliers of bats for the MLB.

Photo of the shop at BWP Bats in Brookville PAWhile the number of bats produced by BWP for MLB places them in the top 25% of suppliers, Josh sees significant opportunity for growth. He expects to spend more time on the road meeting with players and team equipment managers and Kevin, a baseball standout at Villa Maria High School in Erie and at Clarion University, will be behind the scenes managing the manufacturing process. And what an interesting and impressive process it is beginning with the kiln dried process of hardwood billets. I learned that the round billets will age for a couple months in a climate controlled environment of 42 percent humidity. Next in the process is the precision hand-splitting and lathe turning to the specific bat sizes desired, then on to custom painting, engraving, and the diamond burnishing finish to give the bat the maximum surface hardness and durability.

Manufacturing quality products

In addition to an abundance of expertise, during my visit I witnessed an abundance of pride and humbleness. For BWP, it doesn’t matter if it’s a bat for a major leaguer, one of their commemorative bats manufactured to the precise length of a newborn child (what a novel idea and keepsake), for the annual Little League World Series parade, or the two tone charcoal gray and royal (LA Dodgers) blue I ordered for my 7-year old grandson Maddax – every bat is built with pride. As for humbleness, despite the gallery of the many pro baseball player pictures with their customized BWP bats that you pass though to get to the manufacturing area, and despite Josh and Kevin’s visit to the White House as part of Made in U.S.A. Day, these two business owners remain grounded with their work boots dug in and their eyes on the ball looking to make contact one pitch at a time.