Must Reads: Jack White has earned his stripes in baseball
The down time traditionally has been one of the more charming elements of baseball, the chance to enjoy a hot dog and a drink and a conversation with your friends, or with the fans around you, and look up when you hear the crack of the bat.
That, of course, assumes you can hear the person sitting next to you. Good luck with that at Dodger Stadium and across the major leagues, where down time is increasingly considered an irritant, an empty space to be filled with light and sound.
They call it the fan experience. It’s what the younger generation of fans want, they say, not just nine innings of baseball but an evening of entertainment. Blast “Seven Nation Army” from the speakers, flash images of cartoonishly oversized hands clapping on the video board, and spur the fans into a communal exhortation on behalf of the home team.
That is not what the guy who sings “Seven Nation Army” enjoys about baseball.
“To me, it’s the most meditative sport,” Jack White said.
White was calling from France, where the 12-time Grammy winner was raising the decibel level on a European tour of more than seven nations (nine, to be exact). With the White Stripes, and now as a solo artist, White gets loud, on the microphone and on the guitar. He sells loud. He is a rock star.
If he cannot play in a pickup baseball game — his favorite pastime on tour — he loves to attend a game.
“It brings out a lot of thought for me,” White said. “The game is long and peaceful. You have these movements of brutal action that break up the peacefulness. It’s really meditative to me.”
These are not the deep thoughts of a mere fan. White and Angels infielder Ian Kinsler are two of the owners of Warstic, a Dallas-based company that makes baseball bats.
Kinsler, sure. He uses the bats in his day job. But White?
“This guy definitely loves baseball more than I do,” Warstic founder Ben Jenkins said, “and I played.”
Jenkins played one year of rookie ball, in 1996. He quickly realized his future would not be in baseball, and not just because he was a utility player, batting .207 and backing up a 17-year-old teammate named Jimmy Rollins.
“I’m a perfectionist,” Jenkins said. “That’s not good for baseball, but it’s really good for design.”
So he returned home to Texas, where he dabbled in bat making while launching a design firm that helped companies make their most effective pitch to consumers. He guided Marty Turco, the longtime goalie for the NHL’s Dallas Stars, in launching his own brand of craft beer.
It’s who you know. Turco introduced Jenkins to Kinsler, who lives in Texas and had played for the Rangers. When Jenkins wondered whether he could turn his bat-making hobby into a business venture, Kinsler introduced him to White, a longtime Tigers fan whom Kinsler had met when he played in Detroit.
“For me, meeting someone like Jack White is like meeting Ty Cobb,” Jenkins said. “He’s an alien-level creative genius.”
Funny he should mention Cobb. In 2014, en route from a show in Cleveland to another at Fenway Park, White had his tour bus stop in Cooperstown. As his entourage got a private tour of the Hall of Fame, White treasured his chance to hold one of Cobb’s gloves.
And, when White played a brewery in Cooperstown in May, Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson helped to arrange a pickup ballgame for White and his road crew, then presented him with a faux induction plaque, looking very much like the ones to be unveiled Sunday for Tigers greats Jack Morris and Alan Trammell.
“Motor City Master,” read White’s plaque, featuring him wearing a Tigers cap. “Became one of the most prolific musicians in history, launched by 2001 masterpiece Seven Nation Army, which became a cult classic in major league ballparks. Raised in the shadows of Tiger Stadium.”
The Hall will not display the plaque, Idelson said, but in December it will display one of the bats White used in that pickup game.
“What a crazy honor,” White said.
Ah, the bats. There are 35 companies authorized to manufacture bats for major leaguers this season. What distinguishes the Warstic bat?
“Magic trees,” Kinsler joked. “We have a magic tree forest.”
By limiting the number of major leaguers the company serves, Kinsler said, it can better assure that a shipment of a dozen bats contains 10 good ones, not the usual five or six. The Dodgers’ Matt Kemp started using a Warstic bat this season — upon the recommendation of another player, not the involvement of a rock star.
“I picked it up and liked it,” Kemp said. “We’re not going to use bats we don’t like and that aren’t good products.”
But, yeah, Kemp admitted, he would love to meet White someday.
“I heard his concerts are unbelievable,” Kemp said.
White wrote the big checks, according to Jenkins: about $1 million toward licensing, insurance and start-up costs, and another $2.5 million to buy a Dallas building in which the company can build offices, a showroom, a store, a training center and even a bar. White will influence the design, just as he designed the interiors of his recording studio and performance venue.
He’ll design bats too, for looks and not just for hits.
“Bringing a layer of design to a world that doesn’t really care about it, in my opinion,” White said. “With a lot of sports equipment, that’s usually the last thing on the menu. Form follows function.
“But we wanted to take this tool and turn it into an instrument that has more layers in it.”
There are dreams, big and bigger. As the bat business launches, White and Jenkins would like to sponsor players who cannot afford to participate in travel ball, and to build baseball fields for Native American youth to enjoy.
Better yet, perhaps they can play even a small role in popularizing the sport beyond its stubbornly narrow demographic.
“There’s those things you can see in a Ken Burns documentary, where the NPR, tweed-jacket type of intellectuals talk about baseball,” White said. “You discover there’s lots of different layers of society that can relate to the game in different ways and take something from it.”
He owes his living to loud music, and even he knows that turning up the volume is too simple a solution in attracting younger and more diverse crowds to the ballpark. Kinsler ought to invite White into the Angels clubhouse and introduce him to the guy three lockers down. If Rob Manfred cannot figure out how to market Mike Trout, perhaps White can.
Follow Bill Shaikin on Twitter @BillShaikin
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