JUGS Sports | Newsletter 32: What to expect when you sign your first pro contract, and have to start using a wood bat

What to expect when you sign your first pro contract, and have to start using a wood bat. by Tony Gwynn

On my very first swing in professional baseball (I was playing for Walla Walla, the Padres Class A affiliate in the Northwest League), I hit the ball off the end of the bat, it splintered all over the place, and my hands were on fire. I was begging to have my aluminum bat back.

That fear of the wood didn't last too long, though. I'm a contact hitter, a guy who uses bat control to consistently put the barrel of the bat on the ball. The short, light bat gives me the precise control I need to be successful; whether it's aluminum or wood doesn't make much difference.

It is easier for a contact hitter to go from aluminum to wood than a power guy. Home run hitters are used to getting the barrel of that aluminum bat out in front of the plate, often not smacking the ball squarely, and still hitting it out of the park. With a wood bat you have to be letter-perfect almost every time to drive a ball over the fence.

Stick with aluminum until you have to switch when you make it to the pros. Using the aluminum bat will help you advance to the professional ranks a lot quicker because you can afford to make mistakes and still hit the ball hard.

But you have to take a crash course in hitting once you do switch to the wood; you'll really learn a lot about yourself as a hitter - the days of those lucky aluminum bat base hits will be over.

I was scared when I went up to hit for the first time in professional baseball. The Salem Angels had a six foot seven inch pitcher by the name of Buck Long on the mound. He threw 90 mph gas. I remember thinking to myself, "If this guy jams me with an inside pitch, my hands are going to be killing me."

When I first got into pro ball I said stupid things like that instead of just concentrating on hitting the ball. But I grew up in a hurry.

When I arrived at Walla Walla the smallest bat they had was 34 inches and 32 ounces - I had to choke up. When you're down in Class A you can't have specialized equipment.

The first couple of weeks were tough. I was going through bats pretty quickly. I was getting jammed, not quite extending the barrel enough on the inside pitch to hit the ball to left field.

That first month I was swinging a 34 1/2-inch, 35-ounce bat, choking up on it, just trying to get by. When I brought the problem up to the manager - his name was Bill Brick - it was kind of a shock to him. I said, "Coach Brick, these bats are too big for me; I need something a bit smaller." And at the time I was hitting about .360.

He told me I had to make the best of it - "You're hitting .360, what else do you want?" I was fortunate that the major league players were on strike that year (1981). So the club shipped me some bats from the Padres, castoffs from the players who'd been traded or released.

In that batch of bats was a box of Mike Ivie 016s. They were too big for me, but the handles were so good that it was easy to choke up. I used these bats until our club went on the road to Eugene, Oregon.

The Walla Walla Padres had the afternoon off, so Greg Booker, John Kruk and I walked into a sporting goods store in Eugene, casually browsing through the racks of Little League bats on display. And, to my surprise, I found three Mike Ivie 016s, 32 inches and 31 ounces.

I brought my new bats with me to the ballpark the next day and everybody laughed at how tiny they were. But I started using the 32/31s right away, and from that point on I went on a tear. I hit home runs in five straight games, stuff I'd never done before, and that really convinced me that size was important.

With the smaller bat, I could inside - out the ball to left field, handle the inside pitch that used to jam me - even drive the ball over the fence. I hit 12 home runs in a month and a half at Walla Walla; many people thought I'd be the type of hitter who could blast 25 home runs a year. It hasn't turned out that way, of course, but the size of the bat was - and is - very important.

I can talk all day long about what I like, but you're the one who has to try different things to see what works best for you. experiment. Vary bat size in baseball practice until you settle on the ideal model. ask your parents to throw to you while you get the feel of all the distinct styles and sizes.

Go up to the plate with a bat you can handle and control. That's better that using a bigger model, one that allows you to hit the ball well one at bat and poorly the next.

The goal is consistency. Whether you're facing a right-hander or a left-hander, attempting to hit a fastball or a curve, you want the same approach - and the same solid swing - every time.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The above article is an excerpt from the classic instructional book, Tony Gwynn's Total Baseball Player,available from Just Books for about$16. To order your copy call: 1-800-874-4568.