Swinging a (Led)better bat

LHS product in minors using dad's sticks

Teammates’ jaws drop when Curtis Ledbetter tells them the origin of his baseball bats.

“The look on their faces is like, ‘Holy Cow,'” Ledbetter said. “They’re kind of in awe. Even the coaches were pretty surprised.”

Ledbetter’s bats are made by his father.

Calvin Ledbetter co-owns Diamond Carpentry near 23rd and Haskell streets with Sparky Wilhelm, a former Kansas University baseball player. Mostly, the company manufactures custom cabinets, counter tops, book cases and entertainment centers.

“We’ve been busy,” the elder Ledbetter said. “We’re booked until the end of the year.”

Still, over in a corner of the Diamond Carpentry shop is a lathe with eight bat-making templates hanging nearby. They’re ready for use when the phone rings.

“We make bats from orders. Nothing is in stock,” Calvin Ledbetter said. “And we guarantee we’ll ship them within a week.”

No doubt the shipping is even faster when son Curtis calls from Peoria, Ariz., where he is playing professional baseball for the first time.

Calvin Ledbetter, co-owner of Lawrence's Diamond Cabinetry, also makes a line of Diamond bats for minor-league players, including his son Curtis, a Lawrence High product now in the Seattle Mariners' minor-league system. A block of maple, foreground, is turned on a lathe, background, before the brand goes on.

As a standout at Lawrence High – he sparked the Lions to the 2000 Class 6A state title as a senior – and later as an All-Big 12 Conference first baseman at Nebraska University, Curtis Ledbetter used aluminum bats.

Wood mandatory

But wooden bats are mandatory in pro baseball, and, in the minor leagues, anyway, players must purchase their own lumber. Except for Ledbetter. Few, if any, minor-leaguers have a dad who manufactures bats.

“I think I might be the only one, and that’s kind of cool,” Curtis said with a laugh. “It’s been nice not to have to pay for those things. It’s saving me a chunk of change.”

And it might even wind up making his dad some extra change, too.

For instance, in a Peoria game not too long ago, two players homered. One was Ledbetter. The other was a teammate who was using one of Ledbetter’s bats.

“Now some of the other guys are bugging me about using them,” he said.

Ledbetter hauled six or seven bats with him to Arizona in late June. Since then, his dad has sent him another six.

“They don’t break very often,” Calvin Ledbetter said. “He’ll go a week, two weeks without breaking one. Then he’ll break two in two games.”

Mike Yoder/Journal-World Photo Calvin Ledbetter, owner of Diamond Cabinetry, Lawrence, also makes a line of Diamond bats for minor-league players including his son Curtis, a former Lawrence High School player and current player in the Seattle Mariner's minor league farm system. Bats are shaped from a block of maple using a wood lathe.

No wooden baseball bat is impervious to destruction while in use. Hardwood bats would last a little longer, but they would be too heavy to whip through the strike zone, so most pro baseball players prefer bats made of ash. Diamond Carpentry bats, however, are made primarily of maple.

“We’ll do ash bats,” Calvin Ledbetter said, “but I’d say 97 percent of our business is maple.”

Maple or ash. Ash or maple. Take your pick.

All in the head

“A baseball bat is all in your head,” young Ledbetter said. “Ash bats are lighter, but maple is more dense, and the lighter the bat the faster you can bring it through the strike zone.”

Still, Ledbetter prefers the denser bat and, at last check, he was hitting over .300 with several extra-base hits for the Seattle Mariners’ Rookie League team. In fact, if it weren’t for geography, Ledbetter probably would be making his own bats. He has done it before in his dad’s shop.

Diamond Cabinetry has two lathes – an industrial unit that carves a basic model, and a smaller one used for refining the lumber to fit exact specifications. Curtis says he has logged many a minute on the smaller device.

Calvin Ledbetter shows off a nearly finished bat. A block of maple rests on the table, while another bat being turned rests in the lathe in the background.

“You take it off the lathe and see how it feels,” he said. “Then after taking a couple of swings, you put it back on the lathe. Then you keep doing it until you get it the way you want it.”

Ledbetter was a 39th-round selection in the 2000 June draft following his days with the Lions, but opted not to sign. He spent a year at Garden City Community College before transferring to Nebraska, where he red-shirted in 2002. Then, for the next three seasons, he was a virtual fixture at first base for the Cornhuskers.

Last spring, Ledbetter was the second-most-productive hitter on the NU team that qualified for the College World Series. Only third baseman Alex Gordon, the Royals’ first-round June draft pick, compiled better batting stats among the Huskers.

Longer wait

But while Gordon’s name was called early, Ledbetter had to wait until the 18th round. Soon thereafter, he learned the Mariners wanted him to go back to being a catcher, the position he had played at Lawrence High.

So off he went to Arizona to re-learn the art of backstopping. However, with five catchers on the Peoria roster, Ledbetter has seen more duty as the designated hitter than behind the plate.

“I’ve been catching about one of every eight games,” he said. “It’s just getting comfortable at the position again, and it’s starting to come. I’m supposed to catch a little bit more during the second half of the season, maybe once every four games.”

Curtis Ledbetter was a standout catcher for Lawrence High before he played first base collegiately at Garden City Community College and Nebraska. Now that he's in the Seattle Mariners' minor-league organization, Ledbetter has moved back behind the plate.

Ledbetter also has been invited to participate in five weeks of fall instructional ball at the Mariners’ Arizona spring training complex. By then, he hopes, the temperature will have dropped below three digits. It’s so hot in Peoria during the summer that Arizona Rookie League teams play morning or night games, never in the afternoon.

“I call home and tell them it’s 115 degrees every day,” Ledbetter said, “and they tell me at least it’s dry heat. I tell ’em it doesn’t matter, that 115 degrees is 115 degrees no matter how you look at it.”

No matter how you slice it, Ledbetter’s chances of becoming a major-league baseball player will rely primarily on how adept he becomes behind the plate. And because he is already 23 – old for a first-year pro – it probably will have to be a quick study.

Another adjustment

Then, if Ledbetter does reach the major leagues, he’ll have to make another adjustment. He’ll have to improvise because his dad’s company’s bats are not licensed for use in the major leagues.

Still, there are many more minor-league teams than major-league teams, so business remains brisk for Diamond bats.

“We can’t sell them in the majors,” Calvin Ledbetter said, “but there are a lot of guys in the majors who used them in the minors. One is (Royals shortstop) Angel Berroa. We supplied his bats when he was at Omaha.”