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LOUISVILLE — Every wall they looked at was covered in baseball’s all-time great players.
From Babe Ruth to Jackie Robinson and Ted Williams to this generation’s stars like Ken Griffey Jr. and Derek Jeter, the under-14 Schaumburg Flyers baseball team said very little at first, just trying to soak everything in at the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory on Monday.
Most kids are familiar with the game’s best hitters – their beautiful swings, colossal home runs and ability to spray line drives all over the field – but many have limited knowledge of what they use to make the ball explode off their bat.
For the next two weeks, teams participating in the Athletx Baseball Youth Nationals at the Elizabethtown Sports Park are getting a crash course in bat construction, an up-close look at how a piece of lumber turns into a weapon capable of launching baseballs into the bleachers at Major League ballparks.
With an abundance of down time during days with just one game, tournament organizers arranged shuttle busses for every team in the tournament to make the approximately one-hour trip to downtown Louisville and take a guided tour inside the factory.
“I knew there was a process but it’s a lot of work,” said middle infielder Vinnie Kandefer of the various stages of converting a piece of wood into bat. “Once you see them using the bats on the field, it’s really cool because you saw that bat being made in a factory.”
Kandefer’s dad, Mark, is the team’s coach and was grateful his team got the opportunity to see an extraordinary part of baseball history.
“It was enjoyable seeing all the boys interested in how the bats are made,” Mark Kandefer said. “Hopefully they’ll go back with a better understanding of not just the equipment that’s used, but how the game is played.”
The Flyers – who were the 13th of 21 scheduled tours for tournament teams during the day – spent about two and a half hours at the museum, doing everything from learning how big league wood is crafted to taking batting practice.
The factory tour lasted 30 minutes, featuring a variety of speakers explaining the evolution of bat-making from the early days when bats were individually made and took hours to finish, to the present day in which one guide explained he could have three bats made for an entire Major League starting lineup in the time they spent on the tour.
The group passed around bats of Joey Votto, Robinson Cano and Craig Biggio.
“I wanted to get one of each,” Vincent Hilgart said. “Seeing how they made them was really cool. I had no clue how they were made.”
One tour guide, who like the Flyers’ players is from the Chicago area, roused the crowd with a Harry Caray impression and also joked that when you see bats explode on television, those bats are made by Rawlings.
Once the tour was over, the players were free to explore.
“I found it funny how the Derek Jeter and Babe Ruth waxed figures looked real, with their eyes sticking out. That looked pretty cool,” said infielder Zachary Marcopulos. “And I loved the videos they showed us on how the bats were made. Those were very interesting.”
For some, the most incredible part of the experience was the realization that the best players in the world are getting their pieces of lumber from Louisville.
“You see some of these really famous players and think, ‘Wow, they hit home runs and broke records with the bat that I’m seeing,’” said Peter Kandefer, Vinnie’s younger brother who plays with the under-12 Flyers.
The players were accompanied by their families, who were just happy to be along for the ride and share a cool part of baseball history with their sons.
David Nicholson, whose son Matthew plays on the team, said most kids on the team are privy to baseball’s history, so this was the perfect afternoon activity.
“On our team, I would say a good portion of the boys (appreciate the history),” Nicholson said. “They’ve studied the history before and are maybe overwhelmed a little bit now that they’re here. You hear that term ‘pastime.’ (Baseball) is a part of our American heritage and culture.”
On a normal day, players hang around their hotel until it’s time to go to the field to play. There is a pool and the kids have made up their own fun with games of hide-and-seek in the hotel hallways and poker games.
“It’s nice to know what we’re doing and get to learn about the bat factory. Usually we are swimming and just hanging out, but this is pretty fun also,” Hilgart said with a laugh.
Last season, the Flyers played in a tournament in Cooperstown, N.Y., where baseball’s Hall of Fame is located. The team toured baseball’s shrine to past players and got an experience similar to the one in Louisville. But it wasn’t exactly the same.
“This is cool because you can go behind the scenes,” Vinnie Kandefer said. “Cooperstown is nothing like that. You just look at the artifacts and everything.”
Thus far, the Flyers are 1-1. They won their opener 10-9 in nine innings over Rebels Baseball (Mich.) on Saturday and lost a 1-0 heartbreaker to the Louisville Riverhawks on Sunday. Lucas Barnes threw a complete game and was the tough luck loser. Other team members include Colby Miller, Trevor Scianna, Joey Schar, Scotty Gurke, Kyle Swinford and Joey Lopez. Schaumburg was scheduled to play the Whitmer Panthers (Ohio) at 8:15 Monday night.
With all of the players moving onto high school, their youth travel baseball careers are winding down and they won’t get another opportunity to play in a tournament at the ESP.
Mark Kandefer, however, serves on the board for the travel club and said he would strongly recommend a return trip for younger age groups to the tournament.
And some are already planning repeat trips to the museum.
“It was awesome,” Marcopulos said. “I got to see how bats were made and a bunch of Derek Jeter. And he’s my guy. He’s my role model.
“I know I want to come here again when I get older.”
Ryan O’Gara can be reached at (270) 505-1754 or email@example.com.