Small town business hits a home run

It was the seventh inning of the Cubs’ Game 4 in the 2015 NLDS Series against the St. Louis Cardinals. Kyle Schwarber was at the plate. Schwarber hit the ball and it disappeared somewhere above the right-field video board at Wrigley Field. It was a homer that gave the Cubs an insurance run in the organization’s first playoff clincher in Wrigley Field history.

This homerun was hit with a Dinger Bat, manufactured in a small Illinois town and taken to the National League. One year later, Dinger Bats officially made its World Series debut when Schwarber hit a double off the right-field wall in Game 1. The Cubs went on to win its first World Series title since 1908. Both 2016 world champion Cubs outfielders, Chris Coghlan and Schwarber, used Dingers during their winning run in the series, a first for the small manufacturer. While Coghlan started with them midseason, Schwarber has been swinging Dingers since 2014.

Located in the tiny town of Ridgway in southwest Gallatin County, this baseball bat manufacturer has been swinging its business nationwide since 2002. From a corner shop off the main drag, Dinger Bats kicks out 25,000 hardwood bats a year made from ash, birch and maple wood. If Ridgway sounds familiar, it may be from its annual popcorn festival each September.

Leading the five-man Dinger team are father and son co-owners Randy and Kyle Drone, but it’s son Kyle who first pointed a bat beyond the outfield and pitched the business concept to his dad.

Kyle was a college baseball standout at Lambuth University and was named to the Mid-South All Conference second team. His experience as a bullpen catcher for the minor league West Tennessee Diamond Jaxx gives him a hands-on perspective in what players look for in a custom bat.

Between Kyle’s experience with baseball and Randy’s expertise with carpentry, the two launched the business knowing how tough the competition would be. It is one of 32 companies approved by Major League Baseball. With the same benefits that come with regular batting practice, Dinger Bats is
now earning a growing loyalty.

“It was kind of intimidating at first when you consider the competition, but Kyle did his homework and knew what to do,” Randy recalled.

Kyle studied what kind of bats players preferred, designed the bat and then put it in players’ hands. There’s a big difference in the bats used by high school, collegiate and professional players.

“That’s easier said than done,” Randy said.

With help from Randy, Kyle started assembling the equipment alongside his dad’s custom counter business. In all, its common equipment includes a lathe, sander, paint booth and laser engraver, all customized for bat manufacturing.

The wood is shipped from a special, secret source as milled lumber. The staff work the computerized lathe and sander to shape and finish the bats. Considering Ridgway’s location in deep southern Illinois, it’s no surprise to see a St. Louis Cardinals batting helmet sitting atop the lathe.

The staff constantly stops and swings the bats, testing them for the right balance and weight. Only then do the bats proceed to the paint shop for hand painting and varnishing.

The next step is in Kyle’s hands. He operates the laser engraver as the final touch before shipping. Bats range in price from $45 to $125. There are plenty of variables players look for in a bat, especially wood density, balance and taper of the barrel.

If a player isn’t sure which bat they want, there’s the Signature Series: Donald Lutz L-39, Kyle Schwarber KS-10, Matt Adams MA-32, Nevin Ashley G-229, Starling Marte M-6 and Taylor Lindsey TL-8.

Of course, there’s also the limited series Kyle Schwarber World Series Bat. A portion of each bat sale goes toward the TGEN Foundation, which is a research facility working to find a cure for rare childhood diseases.

Besides making professional game bats, Dinger also makes trophy bats as well as bats for youth and softball.

The two Drones have traveled everywhere baseball including ball fields, special camps and professional spring training in Florida and Arizona. They first started by selling in their backyard, so to speak. They have regular customers in high schools, youth leagues, colleges and even the Southern Illinois Miners, a Frontier League team.

“We’ve come a long way, so we’re really proud of that,” Kyle remarked. “We have to manufacture to their specs and hopefully they like it and stay will us.”

Who else is swinging a Dinger? There’s St. Louis Cardinal Matt Adams and Pittsburgh Pirate Starling Marte. The Dinger website has an entire page listing its pro customers.

It’s also worth watching Dinger’s accounts on Facebook and Twitter. It most recently hosted a Twitter Takeover with Sam Travis of the Boston Red Sox.

Thanks to the boost from the World Series debut, the Drones have plans to sell 30,000 bats this year.

It’s much too soon in the season to predict the teams that will end up in the 2017 World Series. Despite the spirited opinions, there is one thing that is certain. There will continue to be professional players using Dinger Bats. Who knows, maybe a Dinger Bat will make it to the World Series a second consecutive year. 

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