Baltimore Orioles hitters working on their swing in spring training this year may get help from a home-grown product: a bat with the weight at what seems the wrong end.
The HeavySwing training bats — assembled in an industrial park in South Baltimore — carry half to two-thirds of the weight in the handle, offering a different way to prepare athletes to hit a pitched baseball, one of the toughest feats in team sports. As the Orioles hold their first scheduled full-squad workout Wednesday at training camp in Sarasota, Fla., the equipment will be there, part of new hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh's tool kit.
Coolbaugh has seen lots of training trends come and go, but he said the handle-weighted bat is different. He's convinced it helps, and the people who run the Baltimore business hope this unorthodox training approach gains traction and sales in a crowded market.
"I don't think HeavySwing is a gimmick," said Coolbaugh, a former major league infielder hired by the Orioles in December after a stint as hitting coach for the Texas Rangers. "It serves a purpose."
The Orioles don't endorse the product, but Coolbaugh said he may use the gear with the Orioles this year, depending on how hitters are doing and what they seem to need. He's one of several current and former major league players who back HeavySwing, including Andre Ethier of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Jonny Gomes of the Atlanta Braves and Michael Morse of the Miami Marlins.
HeavySwing advocates say the handle weight helps developing and experienced athletes learn or fine-tune the most effective attack on the ball — hands tucked close to the body to give the swing more power. For younger players, the bats are meant to develop what HeavySwing calls the "baseball muscles" of the wrists and forearms.
It's common to see on-deck hitters swinging a bat with a weight on the barrel. HeavySwing backers say that reinforces the wrong motion, pulling the hitter's arms away from their body and draining power from the swing.
The handle-weighted training bat is "a totally different concept and mindset," said Danny Kenney, the company president.
This attempted revolution in hitter training is being mounted from an old industrial park on East Patapsco Avenue, where two or three employees assemble the bats from parts made elsewhere.
The company is making a fresh start after the original enterprise, founded in 2011, stumbled amid legal and financial problems.
In September 2013, three former HeavySwing companies and founder Keith Rockhill entered into a consent agreement with the Maryland Securities Commissioner for alleged violations related to how the companies raised capital. While no one admitted guilt, they agreed to refrain from securities and investment activity, and a $100,000 fine was waived.
Rockhill said he is out of the current HeavySwing company formed in 2013. It raised $1.5 million last year and launched a new website in the fall.
It also joined a suit against a rival company, Gaithersburg-based Swing XP, in December, alleging that one of Rockhill's former partners stole the idea for the handle-weighted bat. In papers filed with the court last month, the defendants — two companies and three men — deny the allegations, and further proceedings have yet to be scheduled.
"We're now ready to go to market," said Rob Weinhold, one of HeavySwing's new principals, along with Douglas E. Schmidt, a principal of Workshop Development, a commercial real estate developer in Baltimore, and Kenney, who ran operations for the previous HeavySwing company.
The company also revived a collaboration with Baseball Factory, a Columbia-based baseball and softball instruction company that runs events for young athletes all over the country. Weinhold said HeavySwing's greatest sales opportunity is among youth players and coaches.
He knows that world, having worked as vice president of amateur baseball for Ripken Baseball, a company owned by Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. and his brother, Bill. He's now a principal of Fallston Group, a management consulting firm he founded in Bel Air.
Weinhold and Kenney have been getting the word out on HeavySwing at baseball events this winter, including Major League Baseball's winter meetings in San Diego in December and coaches' conventions in Connecticut, Florida, New Jersey and Texas.
They've been talking up the product, trying to get it into as many hands as they can. The feel, they said, is key to breaking through skepticism in a crowded training gadget market.
"You have to swing it to believe it," Weinhold said. "The 'A-ha' moment is actually when they swing it for the first time."
That feel, or lack of it, was the starting point for the inventor, Rockhill, who, according to the U.S. Patent Office, holds a patent on the handle-weighted "bat, bar, stick, racket or club." The 51-year-old Harford County man said he got the idea while playing high school and college baseball.
"With a doughnut, I never liked the way it felt," said Rockhill of weights placed on the end of bats. "It pulls your arms away from your body."
After college, he tried loading a bat handle with ball bearings and gel, but it didn't work. He went onto other things, spending much of his career inventing products, many for the consumer market.
He said he didn't think much about the handle-weighted bat again until 2010, while watching an Orioles-Yankee game at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. From his seat behind the Yankee dugout he had a good view of the on-deck circle, and a good look at Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter, who at one point swung a short-handled sledgehammer.
"I couldn't believe my eyes," he said. "It just got me thinking again."
Working with local metal shops, he developed the bat and a slender warmup stick — apparently the first handle-weighted training bat in baseball's long history.
How is it possible no one thought of it before?
"If I had a dollar for every time a coach or a player said that to me, I'd have a lot of dollars," Rockhill said.