It started with a makeshift lathe powered by a washing machine motor spinning away in his backyard.
But now Gary Malec, a Wildwood Crest native, oversees a baseball bat company with six employees and upgraded equipment that has delivered wooden barrels to pros including Manny Ramirez and former Phillies outfielder Raul Ibanez.
“It’s catching on like crazy,” said Malec, founder and CEO of Birdman Bats. “It’s really fun.”
Malec carved his first Birdman Bat in 2011 for his brother, Mark, who used it to win the Junior College National Championship for Gloucester County College later that year.
Months earlier, Mark Malec had unknowingly come up with the logo for Birdman Bats during an art school class in Savannah, Georgia.
“It was boring, man. And I was just sitting there drawing,” he said. “I had this, like, crazy ridiculous old-school potato-sack-uniform guy. And then his teammate I drew right next to him. I turned him into a bird for some reason … and I was just like, ‘the Birdman!'”
Although Birdman has sold several bats to MLB stars, the company said it is targeting players in the minor leagues, too.
Recently the guys teamed up with minor leaguer Lars Anderson, who plays first base for the Tulsa Drillers, the AA team affiliated with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Now the entire Drillers squad uses Birdman Bats.
(The Malec brothers and Anderson play in a band together in San Francisco, where they all live.)
“We want the young guys because, you know, [Birdman Bats] has that youthful spirit,” said Gary Malec. “It’ll catch on, they’ll love it, and they’ll take it to the big leagues with ’em.”
Every Birdman Bat is made of birch wood, which Malec said falls in the sweet spot between maple (which is harder) and ash (which bends easily). Ash has been imperiled recently by the emerald ash borer, which eats through white ash trees in Pennsylvania and other states.
But perhaps the biggest thing Birdman Bats has going for it, according to Malec, is that the wooden baseball bats are handmade by a handful of former baseball players — not mass produced in a factory.
Just last year, Hillerich & Bradsby sold its iconic Louisville Slugger brand to athletics giant Wilson Sporting Goods for $70 million, a fact Malec said underscores the industry’s desire for more boutique bat companies.
“We’re like a micro-bat company. Kind of like how microbreweries [are] running Budweiser and Coors out of the game,” said Malec. “We’re doing the same thing to Louisville.”
For Malec, Birdman Bats is a way to stay in the game he can no longer play.
His first knee injury took him off the high school baseball diamond at age 15. It held him back in his 20s. Then, while playing college baseball at age 30, Malec’s knee “exploded” during a run to first base, an injury so severe that he required a cadaver knee replacement.
“I’m 35 now and I’m done for. That’s about it for me,” said Malec. “These bats — it’s like fulfilling my dream of becoming big leaguer.”