Jacob Walters is chasing his major league dream out of a shop in Baldwin City.
It’s not the dream of young sandlot baseball players everywhere, nor is it the dream Walters pursued through youth league baseball to the pitcher's mound of Neosho County Community College of becoming a Major League Baseball player.
The 24-year-old Lawrence man has the dream of putting one of the bats he crafts in his Baldwin City shop into the hands of Major League Baseball players. It is more a goal than a dream, and one Walters wants to realize by getting his bats with the JAWbats logo MLB certified in January.
The shop he opened in Baldwin City earlier this month was an item on a busy personal and business to-do list that Walters is working through as he looks to the January MLB certification deadline. Other items on the list include moving into a new home, getting married and buying some more equipment to supplement the lathe he now uses to turn all the bats he produces.
“It’s going to be a busy time,” he said. “The next few months are going to be pretty intense. I’m running out of months.”
He has been turning wooden bats on a lathe in the basement of his parent’s Lenexa home since he was 16 years old. It was a merger of a family tradition in woodworking and his passion for baseball.
“I grew up playing all sports,” he said. “In high school, I played basketball and baseball. After my sophomore year, I decided to play just baseball.”
Walters was good enough at the game to earn a scholarship to pitch at Neosho County Community College. That’s pretty good, considering one of his teammates was former Royals pitcher Matt Strahm and five others were selected in the major league draft. “We went to the junior college world series my two years at Neosho,” he said. “We had a good group of guys. I really enjoyed my time at Neosho.”
School, however, wasn’t for him, and he was already making money from the wooden bats, Walters said. You might think wood bat production is an obsolete business model with little league, high school and college teams almost exclusively using aluminum bats. That’s not so, Walters said.
“Wood bat tournaments are becoming more and more popular with high school and college guys who can’t use them in most of their games,” he said. “There’s a lot more summer and fall wood bat leagues.”
Walters has been expanding his market since leaving Neosho County in the spring of 2013 as he continued to turn bats in his parents' basement. He got to the point he needed something bigger and was ready to reduce his daily commute to and from Lawrence to Lenexa, but he had difficulty finding a good location until he found the old Vaughncraft Drum shop in downtown Baldwin City with the help of family friends Becki and Gary Dick, of Baldwin City, and the local chamber of commerce.
“Kansas City and Lawrence are so expensive,” he said. “This place has everything I need. It was already set up for woodworking. It has air conditioning and has the small room perfect for finishing bats. What I really needed to get done was find the space. Now that I’ve found this, I need to get a couple more machines and I’ll be ready to roll.”
As the home of the Maple Leaf Festival, Baldwin City would seem a natural home for JAWbats. Although he uses some ash and birch, 90 percent of the bats he produces are made of maple. The tubes of sugar maple he turns into bats come from upstate New York and New England, he said.
He can sculpt a bat on his lathe in 20 to 25 minutes. He plans to buy a computerized lathe that can do that job in two minutes, Walters said. The finish work of staining, painting and putting his JAWbats logos on his bats takes about 12 hours.
Right now, JAWbats is a one-man shop with Walters handling the production and business sides of the business.
“I may need help in a couple of months,” he said. “I have a buddy of mine in mind. He’s ready to help whenever I need him.”
The new shop, the plans for new automated equipment and an employee all point to ramped-up production. Walter wears another hat of marketer, traveling to baseball hotbeds in Florida and Arizona to promote his bats. His father, Curt Walters, said it’s another job his son does well.
“It was impressive to see him in Florida talking to all those kids,” he said. “He was talking to them about all the numbers on the bats that mean nothing to me. He was really in his element.”
Walters said he expanded on his contacts with professional baseball players during a trip this spring to Arizona. A number of major and minor leaguers want to “swing” his bats, he said. That gives him more incentive to get MLB certified.
“I always wanted to get certified, but I was taking it slow so I could get production right first,” he said. “I have things figured out and have players ready to swing them, so it makes sense to go for it.”
To get certified, Walters will have to submit paperwork and provide bats for inspection. He also has to pay a $14,000 annual fee and have a $10 million liability insurance policy. The payoff would make the investment worthwhile.
“You can get an order for 14 dozen bats from a clubhouse, if not more,” he said. “I need to be ready for production, that’s for sure.”
The bats Walters provides major league players won’t be turned on an automated lathe, but will be handmade and finished.
“What I found when I went out to Arizona working with the guys is that nobody does that for them,” he said. “Why not have your own custom model? Guys who order a dozen bats want them all the same. The same weight. The same feel. I can get them extremely close.”