In the swing of it
Former MLB catcher stays in the game by making bats
Chris Corso remembers vividly his first time at bat in a professional baseball game. He’d been called in late in the season, “thrown into the fire,” as he put it, to catch for the Kane County Cougars, a farm team for the Florida Marlins. The first three pitches were fastballs, flying straight over the plate at around 95-100 mph. The fourth looked to repeat the pattern. He swung, but instead of a fastball it turned out to be a slider.
“The bat exploded into about 50 pieces,” Corso recalled.
Injuries the next few years forced him to begin looking at alternative career options, but he hoped to stay close to baseball. Having grown up around woodworkers, he naturally gravitated to the craft. So, he set up a wood lathe in his grandmother’s turn-of-the-century carriage house in the Bay Area and started hand-turning baseball bats.
“By then, a lot of the guys I had played with in the minors were now in the majors,” he said during a recent interview in his north Chico manufacturing facility. “So I asked them to test these things out. The word was always the same—they said, ‘Keep ’em coming.’”
In 2000, Sandlot Stiks was born. A year later, he was making bats for Barry Bonds and many of the rest of the San Francisco Giants’ starting lineup. He supplied a lot of players for the A’s and the Marlins as well. But just as business seemed to be booming, Major League Baseball set new regulations regarding bat manufacturers that priced most of the little guys, including Corso, out of the market.
Again, he adapted, turning his focus to developing a specialized paint coating for his bats that’s “designed for impact resistance.” And, over the past six years, business has been back on the upswing. Corso estimates his company now makes 15,000-20,000 bats a year. He sells them locally and also sends them as far away as Australia, as well as to Canada and throughout the U.S.
With a commitment to the environment, all of Sandlot Stiks’ wood shavings are recyled—chicken farmers love them, and others use them in their smokers, he said. And they reuse the paint, too, that drips off the tip of each bat during the drying process. Corso’s also branching out. He recently started making bats out of American beechwood—in addition to the more typical hard maple and yellow birch—because demand for it is low in comparison. It’s a great hard wood, he said, but until recently technology didn’t exist to keep it from warping.
Most recently, he’s started tapping into other markets as well, creating rolling pins designed for ravioli (they can be found at Zucchini & Vine) and replicating the molding for the Oroville Inn restoration.
Any advice for wannabe business owners? “Get a great accountant and a great lawyer—without those, you’re setting yourself up for failure. After that, advertise! Marketing is extremely important.”