Jimmy Tribble sets a block of Chinese-imported bamboo on a lathe, pops a floppy disk into a computer board and in seconds carves out an otherwise ordinary-looking wood barrel for a baseball bat.
Ordinary, that is, until he fastens it to an aluminum handle.
Then it becomes a MetalWood bat, which Tribble claims gives teams a better training tool, reduces their equipment costs and improves safety and player skills.
From his tiny workshop in Eleanor, Tribble and his small staff produce up to 4,000 bats per year in models ranging from youth baseball to adult softball.
In the debate of aluminum versus wood, Tribble asks: Why not both? Aluminum lends strength to the handle, he says, and saves teams the thousands of dollars it costs to replace brittle wood bats.
His idea came several years ago when Tribble watched the barrel of a broken bat hit a woman in the stands at a Chicago Cubs game.
“I thought to myself, ’How many times have I seen that happen? Surely somebody can make a bat that wouldn’t break in two on the handle,”’ Tribble said.
Tribble bought 10 broken wood bats from Charleston’s minor-league team, took some old aluminum bats from his son’s Little League teams and started tinkering. It took a few years to develop prototypes and go through various approval processes.
Initially, he came up with an aluminum-wood hybrid that had a metal pin running inside the length of the barrel and was locked to the knob of the bat. But the pin made the bat heavier, and the barrel would twist loose after impact.
Eventually, Tribble had the barrel inserted in the aluminum handle, held together by epoxy and a metal pin, which then were covered by a protective rubber sleeve. The sleeve also insulates the batter against the sting of balls hit off the end of the barrel.
“When I first did this, I just had to go out and get into a lot of debt personally. I’m still working my way out,” said Tribble, a self-taught craftsman. “We haven’t shown a profit yet.
“But if we can hang in there, as this pendulum begins to swing back, we’re going to get on that pendulum as it starts swinging and there’s going to be mass momentum coming out of that.”
At MetalWood, boxes containing 20 pieces of laminated bamboo blocks arrive from China. The handles are from Toledo, Ohio; the rubber sleeves are from Cleveland; the leather grips are from California, and the finish and ink are from West Virginia.
Hybrid bats aren’t considered part of the American mainstream, not in a market dominated by aluminum with literally thousands of choices for every age group.
“The reason we’re not in the game is because everybody uses aluminum,” Tribble said.
That’s because metal bats consistently perform better than wood — even Tribble isn’t going to use his hybrid bat in a game if the opponents are armed with aluminum.
But, citing safety concerns, a small but growing number of college and high school leagues around the country are switching back from aluminum to wood bats. Pitchers have been seriously injured or killed by line drives, and aluminum bats have been blamed for increasing the speed of the ball off the bat.
Tribble is not the only one offering hybrid bats. Demarini, a Hillsboro, Ore.-based batmaker owned by Wilson Sporting Goods, has been selling wood-hybrid bats for three years and also has several lines of aluminum bats.
Two Demarini models have composite metal through the length of the bat, tapering toward the barrel, which has a wooden shell. Demarini bat manager Jerry Garnett said sales of those models are “in the tens of thousands,” but declined to be more specific.
“Some people are a little hesitant to load up their shelves with this type of bat because they just don’t know if it’s going to sell or not,” Garnett said. “They can’t have it sitting around on their shelves.”
Tribble, who this spring coached his second high school team to a West Virginia state championship, said baseball needs to standardize its system of bats. Players trying to reach the major leagues often struggle because they’ve used aluminum bats all their lives and must swing with wood once they turn pro, he said.
Not surprisingly, aluminum bat makers disagree.
“It’s not a struggle for the guys who make it,” said Jim Darby, a spokesman for aluminum bat maker Easton. “Every guy in the big leagues today grew up using aluminum, and the guys who didn’t aren’t good enough to make it.”
Tribble is waiting for the day when some team, organization or league decides to take a different approach. Part of his plan is to make inroads in other countries.
In late June, he went to Canada to meet with government officials who want to enact a national training system with wood bats for all age levels starting next year.
China’s fledgling baseball program uses MetalWood bats for training. Former major leaguer Jim Lefebvre, hired to get China’s baseball team prepared for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, also uses the bats in his three-step training system with the National Hitting Association.
“I’m for anybody that wants to be better,” Tribble said. “If the United States chooses not to do that, so be it. It’s a matter of time.”