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Craftsman Puts Bats in Hands of Big Leaguers

April 15, 1993|KEVIN BAXTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Andres Galarraga leaned against the batting cage at the Colorado Rockies' spring training base in Tucson, Ariz., patiently waiting his turn to take a few cuts, when someone noticed his unusual bat.

The handle had been painted a glossy black, in stark contrast to the barrel, which was a shiny white ash. The trademark--an elliptical shape enclosing the word Glomar-- stood out among the Louisville Sluggers and Rawlings brands of Galarraga's teammates.

"Yeah, I use this bat," he offered sheepishly. "It's a good bat. I like it."

Not exactly an enthusiastic endorsement, but Juan Faxas, the man who made the bat, will take it just the same. After all, baseball is a game that has long been bound by tradition. And, in taking on Louisville Slugger and challenging the status quo, Faxas was welcoming all the help he could get.

But Galarraga is only one of about two dozen major league baseball players--all Latinos--who are using Faxas' homemade bats this season.

In 10 months, Faxas has gone from amateur carpenter to bat maker for the stars. It has "happened so fast, we haven't even had time to think about it," Faxas, 52, said. He set the events in motion in June, when he made a toy bat for a friend. A mutual acquaintance showed the bat to Mario Valdes, a sporting goods exporter from Downey, and a few days later Valdes was knocking on the door of Faxas' Diamond Bar home.

"Juan showed me what he was doing and we struck a very good friendship," Valdes said. "Since I have a lot of friends who play in the major leagues, we said let's try to make some bats for professional players."

Faxas quickly dispatched his wife, Estrella, to the Diamond Bar public library, where she checked out a baseball rule book that listed the acceptable lengths and weights for major league bats. Finding the wood was a little more difficult. After dozens of phone calls to lumberyards all over the country, Faxas found a North Carolina firm willing to cut its boards to unusual lengths and ship them to California.

Six weeks later, Faxas had fashioned enough bats for Dodger catcher Carlos Hernandez to give them a trial run. But that test quickly proved to be a miserable failure.

"The first three or four bats we took out there all broke on the second swing," Valdes recalled. "My spirits just sunk. I didn't know whether to get up and walk away or just dive underneath a seat and hide."

Dodger teammate Lenny Harris gleefully added insult to injury, asking Hernandez how long he planned to use "the K mart bats."

Faxas and Valdes had sunk between $7,000 and $8,000 of their money into that first batch of bats only to be humiliated. "I never was concerned about the money at that point," Faxas said. "It was my pride that hurt the most."

Although the bats may have been broken, their maker was unbowed. It takes more than a cracked bat to deter someone who endured 16 months in a Cuban labor camp before immigrating to the United States in 1968.

Faxas quickly traced the problem to the wood, which proved to be suitable for Little Leaguers but not major leaguers. So, after ordering a new shipment of denser material, he went back to work.

Unlike established batmakers such as Louisville Slugger and Rawlings, which can turn out machine-made bats at the rate of one each 20 seconds, Faxas turns each bat by hand on a small lathe in his cramped garage workshop.

And because each player demands a specific length and weight of bat, Faxas must pay careful attention to the wood's dimensions as he shapes it into a major league-quality bat. With a devotion bordering on manic, he was able to turn out as many as 40 bats in a 12-hour shift. But even at that rate, it was November before he had enough for another test.

By then, the U.S. baseball season had ended. But play was just beginning in the Venezuelan winter league, in which a number of big league players participate. So Valdes and business partner Alex Maldonado of Westchester, a former college player in Venezuela, took a shipment of bats to Caracas.

"In a short period, I knew we had improved 500%," said Faxas, an electrical engineer in the nuclear power field. "But when the bats went to Venezuela, I was keeping my fingers crossed."

Such caution quickly proved unwarranted. In their first game, a contest between Hernandez's Caracas Club and the Lara Cardenales, 10 of Lara's 15 hits were made with Faxas' bats.

That success was dampened, however, when tanks rolled a few hours later into the Venezuelan capital in the opening act of a violent coup attempt against the government of President Carlos Andres Perez.

"Mario called me from the hotel in Venezuela," Faxas recalled with a laugh. "He said: 'The bats are phenomenal. Right now, the army is shooting all over the place, but the bats have been fantastic.' "

By the time the government regained control of its streets, players were fighting over Faxas' bats. Luis Sojo of the Toronto Blue Jays grabbed one. So did Seattle's Omar Vizquel and the Houston Astros' Luis Gonzalez.

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