What do Pittsburgh Pirate Sterling Marte, Miami Marlin Garrett Jones, and St. Louis Cardinal Matt Adams all have in common? They all hit major league home runs Monday, September 8, 2014 swinging Dinger bats. Dinger Bats is a family-run business located in Ridgeway, Illinois, but its business operations are based right here in downtown Owensboro.
You could say it began as one man’s dream that really took off when the family got behind him. Kyle Drone always loved baseball, and made it on a minor league roster as a catcher. Since minor league teams have very minimal budgets, it’s not uncommon for teams to “pay” bullpen catchers with bats, which eventually left Kyle with quite a collection of bats. The other backstory is that Kyle’s dad, Randy, had a woodworking business as a furniture maker. The “light bulb moment” came when Kyle wondered if he could use his field research with all those bats and combine it with his dad’s woodworking experience to start making bats in their wood shop. He saw it as a win-win: he could still be involved in the sport that he loved, and it might be a way to expand the family business. Randy saw the vision too, so he bought a lathe and they started cutting bats. Fast forward ten years, and Dinger Bats is slowly gaining a respectable market share of the wooden bat business.
“We cut 33,000 bats this year and we’re projecting 44,000 next year,” said Shane Shepherd, Director of Business Operations for Dinger Bats. Shepherd, who lives in Owensboro, says his job is building and marketing the brand, which he does primarily through relationships with a growing roster of Major League Baseball (“MLB”) players and constant social media presence. Although the vast majority of Dinger bats are sold to minor league or youth league teams, and few are sold to MLB stars in comparison, Shepherd fully realizes that Major Leaguers swinging Dinger bats is the best marketing Dinger could ever have.
That means a lot of miles back and forth to ballparks. Dinger has formed a strong connection with the clubhouse managers in St. Louis and Cincinnati, who allow them to come visit incoming teams, which makes their job much easier and saves a whole lot of travel.
It also means watching a lot of games to try and capture screenshots of players using Dinger bats so Shepherd can tweet pictures from the games. Sometimes he’ll watch three different games on side by side laptops in his office. One of Shepherd’s first projects was re-branding and designing a new logo that was more recognizable and easier to see in the batter’s hands on TV.
Making bats is an exact science. Players can choose exact specifications for the “feel” they want, depending on width, length, and when the barrel starts to taper. “In fact, we’ve got a machine that can laser scan another bat that they like so we can copy it exactly,” Shane said. “Then we can modify it from there.”
If Shepherd gets his way, his dream is to move the paint shop and engraving shop from Illinois to Owensboro. “I think there’s a real opportunity to have a small retail store here, especially with all the development downtown and all the baseball tournaments that come here. Just think about a young kid coming to town for a tournament, coming to the store downtown, seeing all the pro players’ posters on the wall, and then picking out a bat from the store. How awesome would that be?”
Dinger might look like “the little bat company that could” at this point, but they’re making incredible strides by sticking to their Dinger 3S Assurance: superior wood, superior craftsmanship, and superior customer service, which are the same 3 quality assurances the Drone family has always prided themselves on, going all the way back to their furniture-making days. While the Drones and their employees at the wood shop focus on superior wood and craftsmanship, Shepherd focuses on superior customer service by building relationships with Major League hitters, college coaches, and youth league coaches.
There is tremendous potential for Dinger’s growth, and therefore tremendous potential for Owensboro as well. Now, there are 14 employees at the shop in Illinois and a traveling sales crew who sets up to sell at wooden bat leagues and tournaments around the country. Dinger is working on other product lines too, including fielding gloves and batting gloves, but wooden bats are their number-one product.
These are extremely exciting times for Dinger. As the playoffs approach, it will be interesting to watch and see who’s swinging Dinger bats in the postseason this year. Keep up with Dinger at www.dingerbats.com.