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Manufacturing runs, one bat and play at a time

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Getting to Opening Day takes a lot more than a sweet swing or a wicked slider.

The bat outside of the Louisville Slugger museum is almost impossibly big. You may not be able to see it from space, but you get the feeling it’s the first thing you’d see flying into the Louisville airport (where, as a side note, I spent roughly six hours on Tuesday after my first plane’s hydraulic line blew, but I’m not bitter. [I’m super bitter.])

Inside is the surprisingly -- or at least to people who aren’t nearly as interested as I in the minutiae of modern American manufacturing -- fun Louisville Slugger factory tour. From the very beginning, you are reminded of not just the towering achievements that allow you to commission a giant baseball bat to made for your company, but the remarkable amount of work that goes into creating just one aspect of a single game.

The tour starts with the hand lathe process they started with in 1884 and used for much (like, a shocking amount) of the company’s history, a process which took 30 minutes per bat. At the lathe, you’re also told the story of the company’s start in the baseball business, when J.F Hillerich’s son Bud offered to fix the bat of "The Lousiville Slugger" Pete Browning after he broke his bat while in the midst of a bad string of luck. With the newly made bat, Browning went on a hitting streak and the rest was, as they say, history.

That is until, 1980 -- I told you it was a shockingly long time -- when a German sold the company on a computer based lathe, which allowed to bats to be made in under thirty seconds each. It’s a process that’s still used to this day to produce overwhelming majority of Slugger’s roughly 1.9-2 million bats yearly, the results of which can be found in every ballpark and baseball field up through Triple-A.

But for those lucky enough to make it to the Show, there’s yet another machine on the floor reserved only for them. It’s a precision lathe, manufactured in Italy and used in other parts of the world to create things like car parts. And inside of its computer system -- which given its age and the overall aesthetic of the machine, is presumably running either MS-Dos or Atari 2600 -- are the preferred specifications for the bat of every major league player under contract with the company.

wright bat
Photo credit: Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Their information, along with a billet -- the name for the wooden cylinders from which come the bats -- is placed in the machine, a button is pressed and magic happens: you get the actual game bat of an actual MLB player made in a matter of seconds, instead of hours. While we were there, the bats being made were for David Wright, whose Mets had helped start the season the day before against the Royals.

According to the tour guide, over the course of the season, a player like Wright would need more bats than most players would use in a lifetime and they’d all be made not just in that beautiful building on Museum Row, but using that very machine.

And it was in that moment that, perhaps for the first time, I realized just how much work goes into Opening Day.

* * *

From the bat manufacturers, the factory workers making cleats, and the craftsmen creating (and then mass producing) gloves to the grounds crews, concession workers and parking lot attendants, every Opening Day -- and essentially every game between them -- requires a small army to create. That extends to the field, of course, as we saw yesterday.

That’s what’s makes baseball, and Opening Day in particular, feel so important in the way that most other sports feel perfunctory. If government is the place we all come together, baseball is the place we come together to not think about how much we hate politics. We make the bats and the balls, weave the fabric and embroider the hats. And for us, the players we pay to see put on a performance. But they do it together, even when acting entirely independently of one another.

Pitchers like David Price, even when they pitch lights out, need outfielders like Mookie Betts to make spectacular plays just as much as they need relievers like Tazaw, Koji and Kimbrel to keep the other team off the board for the second half of the game. It certainly doesn’t hurt if Hanley Ramirez can dip into his Hanley Ramirez impression, even it’s only a game or two. Pretty much every great performer on the diamond you’ve ever seen has reached where he was not just because of his talent, but the talent around him in any given situation, and from any direction.

Great coaches and managers can be, and often are, the fundamental difference between a bust and a great. Development, like bat manufacturing, is a complicated process with a lot of moving parts, but with no computerized lathe whittling down players to precise specifications. Everyone is a little bit of everything, good at things in ways that make them deficient in others, requiring them to lean to teammates to achieve their goals.

There are a few players who exist somewhat outside this construct, like David Ortiz. Papi, with his two-run home run in the ninth inning, continues to be an ageless wonder inexplicable through modern science. Outside of supernovas like Papi, however, baseball exists entirely in the spaces between each player’s sphere of influence.

You, as an outfielder, must understand not just where you’re supposed to be, but the kind of pitches your pitcher likes to throw late in the count, how much he’s been making opposing batters pull the ball and how willing the guy lined up next to you in center field to run through you (and into a wall) to make a catch.

On every single pitch.

Because, for all that’s said about football as the ultimate team game, year after year we are shown the fickle bounce of a stitched sphere in the dirt can change the fortune of not just a single team but an entire franchise. Imagine how much different things would have been if Mariano Rivera hadn’t thrown the ball away in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, or (gulp) if Bill Buckner had his glove where the ball was going to be (as opposed to where it was.)

And to counteract that anti-serendipity, we all need to work together to achieve greatness. As fans, as players, and most importantly, as people with common goals -- to win a title, win games and make the other team feel bad for having been on the same field as our guys -- but in a way that ultimately makes us proud for having been through it, instead of looking back and wondering what we’ve could have done better to, if not help the team, made ourselves less miserable over the course of a season.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t complain or that criticism of the team is somehow wrong. But rather it’s to say that there’s always going to be something to complain about -- like, can you believe that Travis Shaw didn’t drive in a single run? the kid’s a bum! -- and that doing so doesn’t make you engaged with the team, it makes you the kind of person who we all laugh at when you call into sports radio.

And it’s to remind that speaking softly and carrying a big stick has always been a lot more effective than complaining after every loss or dogging players for not living up to our preconceived notions of what constitutes success.

And if you’re in need of a big stick for the journey, I know a place.