The man loves his lathe.
It's a great green metal machine, a Torreda PA-400 E made in Barcelona. Mike Randolph watches, wonder-filled, as a seven-pound block of wood spins between the drive point and tail stock and, as if by miracle, a 32-ounce version of loveliness appears: a baseball bat.
For the past several years, Randolph has been turning out these beauties from his little shop in Talbot County, on the Eastern Shore.
Some consider him a bat master. "The quality of his bats is superior to every other I've ever used," says Richard Huber of the National Adult Baseball Association. The group buys about 200 of Randolph's signature Chesapeake Thunder wooden bats a year.
The funny thing is, Randolph never played the sport much, except for a street game here and there. But he's sort of The Natural when it comes to wood. He's an artist with ash, a Michelangelo with maple. So when he began making bats, he shared a few with some players and before he knew it other players were placing orders. Minor leaguers swung his black models and major leaguers used his two-tones and life was good and business buzzed and the flow of the game was going Randolph's way.
Then that confounded letter from Major League Baseball arrived and the world . . . stopped . . . turning.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
Just east of Easton, two farms sit side by side -- Shady Side and Sunny Side. You'll find Mike Randolph on the Sunny Side. By all accounts he's a hardworking man. Wispy gray-blond hair and beard, pale blue eyes, in pale blue jeans and a multicolored, striped shirt, turned tan by sawdust: He's 51, built compactly, drives a pickup and today he's hurting a little because he just had eight teeth yanked.
Randolph started crafting fine furniture when he was 18 and living in Tennessee. He got married and he and his wife, Cynthia, moved to the Eastern Shore to be near her family. His company, Talbot Turnings, is a one-room workshop on the old family property. It smells wood-chip crisp and machine-oil acrid. Over the years, he says, "I've made just about everything." He drops the "y" in "everything."
Photos on the wall attest to skills: a gun cabinet, a bookcase, a roll-top desk that sold for $3,500. He has built with cherry, maple, oak. "People used to want real high-quality furniture," he says. "Seems like they started veering toward Wal-Mart."
As the fancy furnishings market vanished, Randolph adapted. He began assembling and finishing pieces for the Bartley Collection, a do-it-yourself furniture company. "I'd rather have built the furniture myself," he says.
He especially enjoyed turning table legs. He fashioned legs for a large department store chain in the 1990s. And balusters for custom-made staircases. "Things were going pretty good," he says. But there was one problem. "Folks weren't paying on time."
Being the kind of man who would rather turn than be turned, Randolph went knocking on opportunity's door. One day near the end of the last century, he was walking through his kitchen and saw a Delmarva Shorebirds baseball bat lying on the counter. His daughter, Arianne, had won it as student of the month. Randolph's mind started turning.
So did his lathe. "It looked pretty simple," he says. "Making the bat was the easy part."
Making the stamp for the logo was hard. "The first die I commissioned came back backwards," he says. He lost $1,600 on the deal.
He visited three post offices and several mail-it-yourself stores, testing the scales in every one to make sure his own small set of scales was aces-up accurate. He didn't even know he was following in the footsteps of the greatest-ever batter, Ted Williams, who weighed his bats at the post office.
"It took me about a year to get everything in order," Randolph says. But he began production, taking the block of wood, shaving it down for two minutes or so, sanding it, trimming the ends, dipping it in lacquer, branding it with his logo or slapping a decal on it. He talked to some guys who played baseball. They started sending him business. "I got my daughter to put me up a Web page," he says. It is www.talboturnings.com.
His small catalogue features a handful of models, with lengths pretty much running 32, 33 or 34 inches and weights varying from 31 to 33 ounces. You can choose the size of your handle and barrel (the fat part near the business end). Many bats are splitting in the major leagues, Randolph says, because players want large barrels and skinny handles.
In August 2000, Randolph felt ready for the Big Show. He wrote a letter to Major League Baseball, requesting information on how to get a bat approved for big league play. A couple of months later, a big league exec responded.
The rules were simple: An official MLB bat had to be made of one piece of wood and could not be longer than 42 inches or have a diameter of more than 23/4 inches. The bat could be cupped at the end, up to one inch deep. You could put anything you wanted on the bat's handle to improve the grip. The markings on the bat had to fall in certain spots. Colors had to be approved.
Over the next year, Randolph sent two batches of bats to the MLB rules committee. He received a letter in January 2002 saying that his sample bat had been approved and could be used in "professional play." Randolph was listed as one of 48 sanctioned suppliers.
He sold a dozen bats to Larry Bigbie, then of the Baltimore Orioles, he says. Other major and minor leaguers bought some bats. He sold to the Shorebirds, the Aberdeen IronBirds and the Trenton Thunder.
Virgil Chevalier, formerly of the Boston Red Sox, used a Chesapeake Thunder when he played for Trenton. "The hard maple bats," he wrote Randolph, "are by far the best performing bats that I have used."
All was clover. Randolph planned to expand operations, hire others, run a year-round, bat-making empire. The dream lasted, oh, about a year.
In the spring of 2002, Sports Illustrated published a story about the explosion of new bats, among them the Chesapeake Thunder. "I told my wife, 'This may be good or bad,' " Randolph says. He just had a feeling.
Sure enough, in December, another MLB letter, "about a half-inch thick," showed up in the mailbox, Randolph says. The rules of engagement had changed. All approved bat suppliers were asked to pay $10,000 a year for administrative costs and show proof of $10 million of liability insurance. The cost of doing business, Randolph says, proved too great.
In a good week -- during the high season of spring and summer -- he turns out about 150 to 200 bats that sell for about $60 apiece. The amount of the annual insurance premium, he explains, was about what he was making as profit from his fledgling enterprise. "I couldn't take everything and pay it on the insurance," he says.
That ended Randolph's major league career.
Since then, MLB has lowered its financial requirements to a $5,000 administrative fee and a $5 million liability policy.
Pat Courtney, a spokesman for MLB, says that his organization changed the rules for the 2003 season because it was concerned about liability issues and about the intentions of some bat makers. "A lot of people who were having their bats approved were taking that approval and using it for other reasons," he says. And MLB justifies the administrative fee as a good-faith demonstration that a company is committed to making bats for major league players.
The restrictions were not put into place to protect larger companies -- such as Louisville Slugger, Rawlings and Wilson -- from competition, Courtney says. Some 30 different bat makers provide bats to the bigs, he says.
Randolph, however, has decided to leave the major leagues to the major manufacturers. Now he mostly makes bats -- predominantly maple, a few ash -- for adult baseball leagues and some colleges.
"It just doesn't make sense to me," he says about MLB's abrupt rules change. He lights up a cigarette. "It doesn't seem fair." He smokes it, stubs it out, tosses it in a coffee can near a discarded bat.
The baseball bat is pure, sleek, sure-balanced and nearly perfectly shaped. It has masculine force, feminine curves. It feels primeval in the hands -- mystical/mythical -- a club held by opposable thumbs and complex-muscled hands. It has the heft and hardness of the first weapon, an extension of the arms, the shoulders, the vengeful brain. Security, survival, success! A vestigial reminder that humankind once battled -- and batted -- truly evil things. It's a threat-thwarter, a defense against the demons all around.
"The pitcher has got only a ball; I've got a bat," super-hitter Hank Aaron said, "so the percentage in weapons is in my favor and I let the fellow with the ball do the fretting."
Legend has it that the first Louisville Slugger was turned in 1884 for Pete Browning, a player known as the Old Gladiator who starred on the Louisville Eclipse. Woodworker Bud Hillerich, 17, saw Browning break a bat, so he fashioned another for the slugger. Browning got three hits the next game.
More than 100 years later, a Hillerich -- John A. Hillerich IV -- is still running the company. It's a dynasty that's older than the New York Yankees. And the major league bat has remained essentially the same.
Through the decades, Louisville Sluggers have been the favorite bats of baseball players at all levels. The company says that more than 60 percent of today's major leaguers -- including Derek Jeter and Ken Griffey Jr. -- use its lumber.
Meanwhile, Mike Randolph churns out Chesapeake Thunders for adult leagues that prefer wood bats because they are more traditional and less dangerous than metal ones.
Most little leaguers, high-schoolers and collegians play with metal bats that are expensive and iridescently ugly. When bat meets ball it makes a bink! sound, like when you pop a metal garbage can lid into place or when a rock hits your oil pan.
Metal bats, says wood bat proponent Huber, "make it an unfair, unpleasant game. The sound of the ball off the bat, that crack, is something that thrills a person, so much more than the ping you get from metal."
In 2001, Huber persuaded the Washington branch of the National Adult Baseball Association -- which has 18 teams including the DC Dukes and Falls Church News Hounds -- to move from metal to wood bats.
"The game of baseball is perfectly designed," Huber says. "There is probably no other athletic game in the history of man that has remained virtually unchanged for 150 years. There is something magical about the dimensions of the game, even with larger, stronger, faster players who come along every generation. When you put metal in that situation, you screw it up."
Metal bats do add distance to hits. But the ball comes off the barrel so fast that it can be hazardous to infielders. "They're just dangerous," Huber says. And that's why he buys from Randolph.
Other grown-up leagues around the country have followed suit, and now there is a wood bat championship every July at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Some have found Talbot Turnings. "I've been keeping myself pretty busy," Randolph says. "I don't have any slack time."
He stays busy during the warm months. But since he can't make bats for the pros anymore, he doesn't see his bat business growing too much anytime soon.
He's looking for something to do the rest of the year. He points to a small, slim pair of wooden things on his work table.
He's thinking of getting into drumsticks.