In a small, nondescript building set back from the road along a strip of industrial warehouses in Waterbury, two brothers and their dad have carved out a successful product line recognized by a growing number of Major League Baseball players: the Tater Bat.
Don’t look for a receptionist; there isn’t one. There are three employees and it’s all in the family. Freddie Vargas Jr., his brother, Jeremiah Vargas, and their father, Freddy Vargas Sr., come here at night to make the bats after doing their day jobs — or, in Jeremiah’s case, his schoolwork for college.
But they’ve come a long way, having moved in 2015 from a shed in the family’s backyard to this 3,000-square-foot structure. Freddy Sr. got it started by making a training bat with Darren Bragg, a Waterbury native who played outfield for the Yankees and Red Sox.
The family named their fledgling company after the slang term for a home run. And now there are six players who have stepped to the plate in major league games this season hitting homers, or at least singles, with Tater Bats. They include Yan Gomes and Michael A. Taylor of the Washington Nationals; Starling Marte of the Pittsburgh Pirates and his teammates Gregory Polanco and Francisco Cervelli; and Noel Cuevas of the Colorado Rockies.
Freddie Jr., who is 28, buzzes me in on a Tuesday afternoon, having taken an hour or two off from his job as a data analyst. His kid brother, 22, was taking a break from his studies at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts. Their dad was busy with his design engineering job in Newtown.
Freddie quickly makes clear his family’s pride and high standards of workmanship. He says that when they were thinking about moving out of that shed, “We came to a crossroads: If we were going to do this, we were going to compete at the highest level or not do it at all.”
The brothers show me a room filled with 36-inch billets from maple, birch and ash trees shipped down from Canada and upstate New York.
“The colder the weather, the stronger the fiber,” Freddie notes. “We only use the best of the best. The lumber mills know exactly what we’re looking for.”
A computerized lathe cuts the billets into bats, which are then put in a manual lathe, where the bat is sanded and hardened by hand. Then comes the paint with multiple layers of finish to make the bat harder. The final step is engraving the barrel with the player’s name.
Making a bat is “very tedious and detail-oriented,” Freddie says. “You have to be very precise with what you’re doing. It takes at least a couple of hours to make one bat.”
Many of them are made according to the specifications of the players. The brothers say this is one of the keys to their good reputation and ability to attract repeat customers.
The walls of their building are lined with photos of those players, including Marte, who was introduced to the Tater Bat by one of his teammates in winter ball. “He’s been using our bats for two years,” Freddie says. “When I first sent him a bat I didn’t hear from him for a while. Then out of nowhere he contacted me and said he was in love with the bat.”
Gomes is another satisfied customer. Freddie says that when Gomes hit a grand slam with a Tater in spring training last year, he ordered a dozen more.
The word is spreading about the Tater. “Last year we had about 150-200 professional players using our bats: in the MLB, the minor league and the independent leagues,” Freddie says. He adds that they made about 6,000 bats last year (about 500 of them for the pros) and the family had already reached that level this year as of my visit in early June.
Their competition is stiff; there are three dozen bat manufacturers for Major League Baseball players. “We’re going up against multimillion-dollar companies,” Freddie says. “But our players are loyal to us.”
I ask if the family considers the iconic Louisville Slugger a competitor. Freddie says, “Not really. We just focus on making the best quality bat. We’re constantly improving. We test it out because we want it to be better, for a little boom. We’re constantly doing R&D.”
The brothers ask our photographer not to take photos of a detailed bat diagram; they don’t want those competitors to see it. Freddie says, “We do things that are special to make the bats harder. That’s why we’re getting more players. I won’t say what that is. It’s a secret. The wood finish we apply is secret too.”
Jeremiah notes: “We’re looking to put in more pop.”
In May, Tater Bats had a visitor: Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, who named the company as his manufacturer of the week.
“I’m a huge baseball fan, so I take pride in being able to highlight a Connecticut company whose bats are used by big league players,” Murphy said in a press release. “Tater Bats is relatively new but are already making an impact. I look forward to seeing great things from them.”
But as Freddie tells me, it’s not easy. In addition to the late-night and weekend work, the finances are daunting; the family pays $35,000 in annual licensing fees to Major League Baseball. “We’re here making the bats at night sometimes till 1 or 1:30 in the morning. Then we have to get up at 6 a.m. to go to our regular jobs.”
Freddie also goes to spring training to meet major leaguers and show them his bats. “Everything is through word of mouth. We don’t have ad campaigns. People will refer somebody. ‘Hey! Where’d you get that bat?’ And then they’ll come in.”
People with deeper pockets have offered to invest in Tater Bats, Freddie says. But the family always turns them down. “We do this because we love baseball and the feedback from the players,” he says. “We do it out of passion.”