A baseball-bat manufacturer in Shirley Mills gets his call-up to the big leagues.
By Joel Crabtree
Photographed by Brian Fitzgerald
Last summer, the year after the Kansas City Royals won their first World Series in three decades, the team’s first baseman, Eric Hosmer, stepped up to the plate for his first at-bat in a Major League Baseball all-star game. Then, he drilled a solo home run so hard over the left-field wall at San Diego’s Petco Park that the ink on the ball left an imprint on the bat. Hosmer earned MVP honors, and the bat, with the manufacturer’s “DTB” logo engraved on its middle, earned a trip back east, to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, nearer its humble origins in the woods of Shirley Mills, Maine.
“DTB” is Dove Tail Bats, one of only a few dozen MLB-approved bat makers, run by Paul Lancisi in a workshop 10 minutes south of Greenville. In addition to Hosmer, a growing number of notable major leaguers have swung Lancisi’s bats, including other Royals Alex Gordon and Mike Moustakas, Washington Nationals Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon, and Phillies catcher Cameron Rupp. “I’ve tried almost every bat company out there,” says Brett Phillips, a top prospect with the Milwaukee Brewers. “You name it, I’ve tried it.” But Phillips took a liking to the feel of Dove Tail’s lumber and gloss — there’s a hardness to the bats that makes the ball jump off the barrel, he says. And he’s keen on being able to customize specs: “I like a skinny handle, I like a medium-sized barrel, I want it this size, and I want it this weight — they take those measurements and make that perfect bat for you.”
Lancisi was once a ballplayer himself, pitching in an amateur league in Massachusetts, his home state. The Yankees scouted him in 1979, and he tried out for the Red Sox a few years later. Around the same time, he attended a vocational high school to study carpentry, learning the full gamut of wood types and how to work with them. In 1996, his playing days behind him (including a stint as a professional fast-pitch softball player), he and his wife, Theresa, who’s originally from Belfast, moved to Maine and started a cabinetmaking business. That venture demanded most of Lancisi’s attention, but after a while he started tinkering with bat designs. In 2007, he patented a training bat that uses nylon sleeves to produce a cracking noise when players make proper contact, and that got him a foothold in the industry. He decided to go all in: “I didn’t want to just have a bat company,” he says. “There are enough of them out there. I wanted the best bat company.”
Using Maine maple, birch, and ash, he refined his bat-making process until, in 2013, he felt ready to make the leap to the big leagues, a move that’s both rigorous and expensive. On top of having to prove the product’s quality and pre-arrange a minimum number of sales to MLB clubhouses, manufacturers pay $15,000 just for the right to sell within the league and thousands more for insurance, in case a bat defect should injure a multi-million-dollar-a-year athlete.
CLICK IMAGES TO EXPAND
Batter up: Dozens of other bat companies compete for business among Major League Baseball teams and players. Dove Tail’s small size allows for a personal touch — the company can customize bats to meet specific players’ needs.
In Dove Tail’s first season in the majors, the company didn’t make back what it invested. But Lancisi committed to a second year of licensing fees and insurance payments, and that’s when the brand started catching on. A few players, including the Royals’ Hosmer, picked up the bats and shared them around their clubhouses. Not long after, the Royals won the World Series with some of their most productive hitters using Dove Tail lumber. Interest skyrocketed among both pros and amateurs. “In 2015, we did 7,000 bats,” Lancisi says. “In ’16, we did 14,000. Our goal for this year is over 30,000.” He recently hired a sales manager in Arizona, where half of MLB teams go for spring training, and he has reps selling all over the world. Although he’s already hooked some big-name ballplayers, he’s also targeting minor leaguers. It’s what he calls “the trickle-up effect”: not only will many minor leaguers get called up someday, but they also mingle with major leaguers during offseason training, when players — notoriously finicky about their gear — like to swing each other’s bats to see if something clicks.
Dove Tail’s nine employees at the Shirley Mills workshop hand-split every 40-pound hunk of wood that comes in, then saw the pieces into 16-pound blocks. Each block gets thrown into a massive new kiln, where it dries to about 8 pounds. Then, it’s shaved down to a 5-pound cylinder and finally shaped into a 31- or 32-ounce bat, stained, and engraved with a “DTB.”
The workshop looks like an extension of Lancisi’s passion. A “bat room” is essentially a woodworker’s dugout, with marked-up designs hanging on nearly every inch of wall space. Lancisi picks up a bat about halfway to completion. “This is for Alex Gordon,” he notes, turning it over in his hands, feeling its weight and eyeing its shape. Even with high-profile clients, though, Dove Tail is still a relatively small, insurgent firm chipping away at a business long dominated by a few major manufacturers. Lancisi keeps his rivals’ bats lined up along a wall — Louisville Slugger, Marucci, Zinger, Old Hickory, Rawlings. Their presence as much reflects his studious approach to the craft as it makes a statement that Dove Tail belongs in the club.
In a small retail room, where he sells T-shirts and hats to curious travelers who duck by in the summer, Lancisi flips through photos on his phone to find a shot of himself next to another Dove Tail bat that made the Hall of Fame, this one in an exhibit about the Royals’ World Series win. It reminds him that Hosmer texted right after the team won the American League pennant: the first baseman needed a new bat, in time for the World Series just a few days later, that would weigh precisely an ounce less. The Dove Tail crew logged weekend hours and got it done.
As Lancisi rattles off a list of all the players swinging his bats, many of them established pros, he pauses on J.D. Arrowood, the 1195th pick in the 2015 draft who played last season in the bottom of the Tampa Bay Rays minor-league system. “This kid will make it,” Lancisi says. “Just because of the tenacity. He’s an underdog.” No doubt he means it. He might as well be talking about himself.