Inside a two-car garage at his simple Chester County ranch home, Steve McCardell works a hand lathe hours each day, turning maple and ash billets into high-performing instruments — assuming their users make contact. His craft: baseball bats.
McCardell, 29, is the founder of Prowler Bat Co., a small business the former shortstop at Shippensburg and Pennsylvania State Universities has built from a sports passion nurtured since he was a young boy. It continued to whisper to McCardell after he left college in 2011, without graduating, to work on his father's farm.
"I remember cutting grass, continually thinking about company names and a cool logo," he recalled on a recent morning in his quiet West Goshen Township subdivision, just outside West Chester.
McCardell bought his first lathe off Craigslist for $75 in 2013 and started making bats in the barn after his farm chores were done. A year later, he turned hobby into career, learning through YouTube videos and other research how to shave a block of wood into the weight, dimensions, and balance required to produce bats meeting the specifications of models in demand, such as the 271 from Louisville Slugger.
His timing has been fortuitous, with wooden-bat tournaments on an upswing, so to speak, and safety-related mandates for aluminum designs making those less enticing.
"I sold 234 bats my first year," he said at his workshop, where custom Prowlers in a variety of colors and styles, each bearing the company logo — a fox — hang where garden tools, bicycles and lawn furniture would in a typical garage.
To date, Prowler has sold 650 bats to youths and adults, with the company of one employee (McCardell) turning profitable last year and expecting to gross nearly $40,000 this year. Maple bats sell for $75; ash, for $70.
"The long-term, way-in-the-distance goal is to get to the major leagues," he said.
Many blocks of wood stand between McCardell and that milestone, though some Phillies have swung some Prowler bats — including hitting coach Matt Stairs, no slouch at the plate with the record for most pinch-hit home runs in Major League Baseball.
The reviews were favorable, said Ben Davis, a former major-leaguer who is now Phillies color commentator on Comcast SportsNet. He knows the McCardell family and got Prowler bats into the hands of Stairs, who shared them with other Phillies.
"They really liked the feel of the bat," Davis said of Stairs, first baseman Tommy Joseph, and catcher Andrew Knapp.
So do scores of customers at Kelly's Sports in West Chester. "It's the toughest bat to keep in stock," said Ronnie Brittingham, manager and buyer at the family-owned store. "It's the best bat we sell in wood."
Whether Prowlers ever make it into an MLB game depends on whether McCardell is willing to make the kind of big investment required to get there. He estimated that cost at $75,000 — for the heavier kind of clear coat needed on a bat that connects with a 90-mph fastball, and for the $15,000 application fee to set up a demonstration at spring training.
"I just want to make sure it's the best product I can make before I take that plunge," McCardell said.
For inspiration, he needs to look just 20 miles northeast to Norristown, home of Chandler Bats. David Chandler, 48, started the company in 2010, after MLB changed standards in an effort to reduce the incidence of dangerous splintering bats. Unlike McCardell, Chandler, a woodworker, started his business to serve professional players.
"I figured if what I had was worthy, it would work," he said. Among Chandler Bats users is New York Yankees rookie outfielder Aaron Judge, the 2017 Home Run Derby champ.
Chandler would not provide revenue specifics for his company of 13 employees, saying only that annual sales are "well over $1 million." Adult bats sell for $195 to $200; youth sizes, from $95 to $125.
Chandler welcomes the competition from Prowler, just as the principals at Hillerich & Bradsby, makers of Louisville Slugger, have been supportive of his efforts.
"I applaud McCardell and his desire to be in it," Chandler said, adding that the path to success will be understanding the market and differentiating Prowler from the competition.
For now, McCardell spends many weekends on the road, attending tournaments and encouraging players to try his bats.