Clint Fraser was eager to show off his latest piece of wood.
With a colorful facial caricature, bright red curls, a face mask with the jersey number — 77, a necklace and sunglasses, his new bat had all the typical brown, gray or black of a bat.
Late last month, Frazier posted a short video on Twitter with a classic Major League Baseball marketing slogan: Let the children play!
The New York Yankees’ outfielder will once again be at his best during the BP, one of many artfully crafted bats on display at major league training camp this spring, along with some of the biggest names in the game.
Let the children play! @VictusSports pic.twitter.com/pAKntBLc6K
– Clint Frazier (@clintfrazier) 25. February 2021
Two days before Frazier’s post, the Philadelphia Phillies tweeted a series of photos of six-time All-Star Bryce Harper with a bat similar to the one that graces the Philly Phanatic’s image.
Bryce entered Clearwooder. pic.twitter.com/nS5WRbqxUR
– Philadelphia Phillies (@Phillies) February 23, 2021
San Diego Padres outfielder Fernando Tatis Jr. was spotted wearing his own custom version, and Chicago White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson was chosen for the road.
The attractive custom painted bats are owned by Victus Sports, a wooden bat company based in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. Victus Sports was acquired in 2017 by Marucci Sports, the best known supplier of big league bats. Victus Sports has been making big league bats since 2012, but took a leap forward last year by recruiting artist Bruce Tatem.
Players give us feedback on what they like, maybe something that represents where they come from, things like that, Tatem said of the design process. Then I start sketching or we have a design meeting together to discuss and pitch the ideas. I just take the collection, put it in my computer and start laughing at the bat drawing. Sometimes I just go with it.
Tatem, 44, spent more than 20 years airbrushing everything from motorcycles to hockey goalie masks before starting his Victus Sports projects. His first custom bat went to former Major League player Johnny Gomez. Tatem, a native of Biglerville, Pennsylvania, and graduate of the Art Institute of Philadelphia, was initially skeptical about using the baseball bat as a canvas.
At first I thought I was working on a completely round surface, but I love the fact that you can unroll the bat and the art comes out, Tatham says. It’s not like the side of the bike where you see everything at once. I love the way the web works. I think I’ve solved the mystery of how to do it and make it look like an attractive work of art.
Tatem works closely with designer Ryan Smith, better known as Diesel. Together they can make a bat in a few days or weeks, depending on the project. A company that produced about 20 percent of the bats used on opening day last season may produce 100 or more bats for special events such as player weekend, the league’s annual showcase. When artists work on bats for 72 hours straight without sleeping, it can create a timing problem.
When Diesel was doing the Home Run Derby and the Players Weekend [beats], sometimes you didn’t know who would be at the Derby until the last minute, Tatem said. So you have no choice but to stay up all night.
Victus Sports artist Bruce Tatem at work airbrushing a custom bat. Adam Hribar/JTWO
One of the group’s most recent projects is Tatis custom wood, following its breakthrough in 2020.
We weren’t 100 percent sure how we were going to convey that, Tatham said. We just knew we wanted to build a racket. It will be a limited edition of Tatis. When I expressed these ideas, one of the guys said: Can you put blonde dreadlocks on a bat? I didn’t say anything, but it stuck in my head and I went home that night with the words: You know what? I think I want to do Tatis’s battle face.
As usual Tatem put the design on the computer and calculated the right measurements for the portrait before starting the airbrushing. Using the image of Tatis, he drew an image of the player on the bat, then printed stencils and airbrushed the smaller parts. From there, the bat went to the paint crew, who finished the bat before sending a special project to the Padres’ shortstop.
When [Tatem] first came out, we first decided, hey, now we have the ability to not only make crazy colors and dive bats, but now we can actually make art with bats, and I think that’s the direction we’re going now, and I think that’s one of the things we want to make a trophy out of, to be the best at that, says Victus Sports CEO Jared Smith. We want to keep pushing the boundaries, so that no one can catch up with us, because you’ll see other companies doing more and more of what we do, and we’re excited about that.
Victus Sports’ bat designs range from MLB players and mascots … Two pencils? Thank you, Victus Sports.
The company hopes to bring bat design into the big leagues, but the work will be limited to social media posts, special events and bat training – for now.
MLB Rule 3.02(d) states that colored bats may not be used in professional play unless approved by the rules committee, but the rules must be broken – even if the league tries to stop the trend before it has even started.
A concrete example: Harper, who has used the company’s more traditional line of bats in games for years. Five years ago, at 4. In July, Harper, then with the Washington Nationals, pulled out a bat painted red, white and blue on a plate and decorated with stars and stripes and a silhouette of Chandler Beath’s Washington skyline. He quickly recalled pitcher Madison Bumgarner from the San Francisco Giants.
Harper gets away with it, but a year later his hopes of introducing a new Victus patriotic sports racket for Independence Day – this time with the Statue of Liberty – are dashed. He wrote on Instagram that MLB rules prohibit him from using it.
Someday I hope @MLB players can express their feelings and thank all those who make our lives possible and safe every day with a bat, shoe or otherwise, Harper wrote. And no, I will not be using the bat today to comply with @MLB rules!
The MLB then issued a warning to Victus Sports and reminded the company that its license to supply game equipment could be suspended. Since then, the league has softened its stance somewhat, at least for the Home Run Derby and Player’s Weekend, when the MLB expands its limited color palette for bats and allows logos and lettering that are normally prohibited.
That led to the company’s biggest moment in the spotlight yet, when Harper won the 2019 Home Run Derby with an iconic We The People and American Flag Victus Sports bat. No company shows my identity in my pieces more than Victus, Harper said through a Victus Sports spokesperson.
The MLB began experimenting with non-traditional bat colors when the league introduced pink bats in Mother’s Day games in 2006. The league has not said whether there are plans to ease restrictions on bat design, as it has done in recent seasons by allowing custom cleats, but Victus sees a future where colored bats are the norm.
I can certainly imagine. I’d be delighted. Do I think MLB will do it? I hope so. I mean, I hope they see the value. I think in any sport that you play, you see all kinds of different things happening, both in construction and in manufacturing, Smith said. In any case, I think they’ll continue to give us a platform to showcase things, at least in baseball training, and hopefully with events like the Home Run Derby [and] Players Weekend.
Now that we can start doing some of these cool things for our players, guys that we have marketing deals with or just guys that we’ve been attracted to for a long time and really like, you’re going to see more and more of these things, Smith said, at least if MLB doesn’t stop us.
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