Chips Fly As Baseball's Return Cheers Bat Makers

AT the Louisville Slugger factory, lathes are working overtime, peeling logs of white ash into bats for major league players rushing back to work.

At Topps Company's Duryea, Pa., plant, the presses are whirring again, spitting out bulk orders of baseball cards -- the currency of spring for swap-minded youngsters all across America.

Philadelphia's Aramark concession company is even scrambling for extra hot dogs and pretzels to ensure that ballpark crowds will at least go home full if the home team goes down in defeat.

All across America the real business of baseball has suddenly sprung back to life. There's a whole lot of sawing, grinding, stamping, stitching, and cooking going on as firms and stadiums get ready for the first game of the resurgent major league season, now scheduled for April 26.

These small traditions are a big part of why baseball, its image battered as it now is, has long been thought of as the national game. Take bats. The crack of wooden ones is a sound of summer -- and it's a sound that now is heard for the most part only in the major leagues.

Unlike many lower levels, the majors still use wooden bats. For Hillerich-Bradsby Company, which makes Louisville Sluggers, this means 200,000 bats for the majors each season. (Each player goes through about 90 bats, at $25.50 apiece.)

Company spokesman Bill Williams says that Hillerich-Bradsby has been making bats since 1884 and counts Babe Ruth among its customers, but even with such regular business, the company actually loses money. ''We do it more for the for love of the game,'' he says, using a common phrase these days.

Meanwhile, at the Topps Company, factory workers are oiling the presses in preparation for stamping out bulk orders of glossy trading cards.

Before the strike, says Topps spokesman Marty Appel, production levels were lower than at any point since the 1965 season, because the company refused to print cards of replacement players. Few fans were interested in buying cards for a season that might not happen.

But today, with ''real baseball'' near, Mr. Appel says it would be ''a fair assumption'' to say that card orders will increase, and that the few cards printed before the season will be extra valuable in the eyes of collectors.

At Russell Athletic Company's factory in Alexander City, Ala., seamstresses are busy stitching up uniforms for the real major leaguers, after just shipping out game whites for replacement players in the last several weeks.

The year's order for Rawlings, the St. Louis-based sporting goods company that sews balls for the major leagues, has already been filled.

But Randy Black, vice president of marketing for Rawlings, says the return of the permanent ballplayers should keep Rawlings busy with orders from Little League teams. ''Our hope is that there will be some good conversations now about major league baseball, some enthusiasm, and that we'll see more youngsters sign up to give the game a try,'' he says.

At Aramark, the Philadelphia-based concessions company that serves nine major league ballparks, managers are scrambling to procure enough sodas, pretzels, and hot dogs to stuff the 15,000 extra fans expected to attend opening day with ''the real guys.''

Tom Lawler, manager at Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium, says 30,000 fans bought tickets to see the replacement Pittsburgh Pirates home opener, whereas the opening-day crowd for the permanent team should be about 45,000.

These extra fans, he says, will eat an additional 4,000 hot dogs, 2,000 pretzels, and 1,000 pizzas per game. If attendance stays at normal levels, Mr. Lawler says, the regular players should help him sell a million more franks this season. That doesn't include untold tons of ketchup, mustard, and nacho sauce that workers slosh into stadium dispensers before games.

Outside the stadium areas, souvenir vendors and restaurateurs are wiping their brows in relief as well, and ordering more shirts, posters, and place mats with the names and pictures of the game's great stars.

IN Boston, even the city fathers are smiling. As the meter maids who work the congested neighborhood around Fenway Park tell it, parking tickets are popular items on game days.

At major league baseball headquarters in New York, the story is no different. Schedulers are crouched over spreadsheets, trying to engineer an entirely new 144-game dance card for all 28 teams by Monday.

Baseball's rulemakers are also busy accommodating for the shortened season and the abbreviated spring-training period. This season, for example, pitchers will be assigned wins and losses after only three innings of play instead of the usual five.

Then, there are the lawyers and agents. Just when you thought they would finally leave town with their loot, the players' union and the owners are just beginning to look at next year's contract. In addition, 800 unsigned players and 200 free agents are still floating around without contracts; and everyone seems to have forgotten that the umpires are still on strike.

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