Easton steps up to plate, buys bat biz

Stix Baseball Inc. President Randy O’Neal pitched for seven years in Major League Baseball. Fie knows the players. He knows the coaches.

And he knows a deal when he sees one.

O’Neal has sold his Orlando-based bat manufacturing concern to aluminum bar giant Easton Sports Inc. in the Los Angeles’ company’s first foray into the wooden bat market.

“This helps us fill out our baseball line.” says John Cramer, vice president and general counsel of Easton Sports. “We liked the product. we found they had a great reputation. and the people they had knew the business”

Stix Baseball has worked hard over the past few years to gain that reputation.

The company started out in 1992 as Kissimmee Sticks from rather humble beginnings. Then-owner Mike Romack, who had been in the construction industry for 22 years, made a bat for his son. His son took the bat to a spring training game.

A major-league player took a swing, and the company took off. Before long, about 7,500 bats a year were being manufactured in Romack’s garage in the middle of a Kissimmee orange grove.

Looking for investors, Romack brought on O’Neal; Steve Miller, a financial adviser with the Orlando office of Smith Barney; and major-league catchers Joe Oliver and Ron Karkovice. O’Neal says the investors were unhappy with the quality of the new softball bats, so they bought the company from Romack in 1995.

After O’Neal bought the company, it was moved to a warehouse in Orlando. Production increased, and last year the company made and sold 25,000 bats, including thousands to major-league players.

Currently, O’Neal says about 115 major-league players uses the Stix brand, including all-stars Anaheim Angels first baseman Mo Vaughn, San Francisco Giants outfielder Barry Bonds and Houston Astros first baseman Jeff Bagwell.

The company also sold its bats to about 18 minor-league organizations.

That’s due in large part to O’Neal’s experience in the major leagues – and the fact that he is on a first-name basis with equipment managers.

That Rolodex gave his company an entrance that many bat manufacturers could only dream about.

“I would go into a clubhouse and see several equipment dealers waiting to speak to a team official about their bats,” O’Neal says. “The equipment manager would see me, invite me into their office while the other dealers complained that they had been waiting for 45 minutes.”

The response from the team officials: “Wait another 45 minutes,” O’Neal says. “I would come out after doing business, and they would still be waiting.”

But despite the salesmanship, the firm has never turned a profit.

“We were at a point where we hoped to take it to the next level, but it’s tough to do it out of your own pockets,” O’Neal says.

That’s where Easton comes in.

Easton is one of the larger companies in the aluminum bat market. Among colleges, Easton is king. But when the players switch to wooden bats in the minor leagues, they have to find a new bat manufacturer to use because Easton doesn’t make wooden bats.

The hope is that Stix Baseball will grow at a grass-roots level and that players will use the now-Easton products from the time they start playing baseball through the major leagues.

“We felt this would be a great opportunity for us to be affiliated with the name brand of Easton and with their marketing experience,” O’Neal says.

Easton says the company will stay in Orlando and the same executives will continue to run the company, including the company’s bat maker who ran Worth’s bat operations for 18 years.

“Basically, we were one of the assets they bought,” O’Neal says of,he company’s executive talent.

But that’s all right for O’Neal, who says he sees home runs in the company’s bottom line. Says O’Neal, “We’re going to be big players in the bat market.”

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