Heavy hitters warm up to local inventors’s bat

On May 1, 1985, Cincinnati Reds slugger Dave Parker was struggling with no home runs, five runs batted in and a .280 batting average–an inauspicious start for the man who would later emerge as a top contender for the National League’s Most Valuable Player award.

Enter Bill Dirksing, manufacturer and co-inventor of an adjustable-weight warm-up bat.

Dirksing had taken an early model of his warm-up bat to Reds trainer Larry Starr the day before, hoping for some feedback from the pros. Sitting in the stands and looking into the dugout through binoculars, his surprise at seeing his bat laid out with the others turned to elation when Parker carried it onto the on-deck circle to warm up.

The rest is baseball history.

With Dirksing’s bat in tow, Parker was named NL Player of the Month in May, finished among the league leaders in hitting, home runs and RBIs and placed second to Willie McGee in 1985 MVP balloting.

Although Parker could not be reached for his opinion, Dirksing, not surprisingly, likes to think his bat played a part in Parker’s stellar performance. Moreover, he’d like to build on that success in 1986, and turn it into profit for himself and the company he formed to make and market his Brutus warm-up bats.

By day, Dirksing, 39, is a packaging machine designer at The Procter & Gamble Co.’s Winton Hill Technical Center. By night and on weekends, he’s president and sole owner of Dirx Co., an Ohio corporation set up last August.

Dirksing plans to recoup his initial $10,000 investment this year, making and selling 1,500 bats in two styles, Brutus Maximus and a lighter-weight Brutus Bumpus.

What makes the mens slowpitch softball bats unique, and is the basis of a patent application now pending with the U.S. Patent Office, is an adjustable weight that can be screwed up and down the bat shaft, varying the resistance and effective weight of the bats.

Parker used Dirksing’s bat all last year, with the aforementioned results. Other major league players, including former Red Ken Griffey, now with the New York Yankees but still a Cincinnati resident, have requested and obtained bats from Dirksing.

In addition, Dirksing plans to travel to Florida next month and visit all the major league clubs training there. He’d like to see at least one or two of his bats with every major league team for the 1986 season.

Nevertheless, while professional acceptance and exposure is valuable, at $49.95 a bat, Dirksing knows he won’t get rich selling to major league clubs. His primary target market is the thousands of softball teams all over the country, some 3,000 of which are right here in the Greater Cincinnati area.

While on a recent trip to the East Coast to get approval from a national softball sanctioning body, Dirksing said he talked with a representative from the largest softball bat maker in the nation. The official estimated there are 40 million softball players in the United States, Dirksing said.

In order to begin tapping that market, Dirksing is finalizing a one-year marketing agreement with a local sales organization to sell the bats throughout a five-state area, including Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois and West Virginia.

With some 50 bats already either given away or sold so far, Dirksing has purchased materials for 500 bats and has plans for another 1,000 when those are completed. All the components and finishing are purchased from local vendors. The bats are assembled by Dirksing and his two sons in their 12-by-28 garage in Mount Airy, with a drill press and an air compressor.

At this point, Dirksing is unsure where his venture will go after this year. He’s done some advertising in a local softball publication, but doesn’t have any present plans for wider distribution just yet; mainly because he can’t produce any more.

Though he wouldn’t release for publication what it costs him to produce each bat, Dirksing indicated his margin will increase as sales climb and he seeks new bids for larger quantities from his suppliers. As things stand now, he should get back all his out-of-pocket expenses this year, excluding the labor he and his sons have invested, Dirksing said.

Eventually, he may decide to let someone else manufacture the bats for him or sell the patent rights, he said.

Dirksing filed a patent application last April while the product was still in its early stages of development. His son John, who first came up with the idea, and brother Jack are also included on the patent application.

Working with a local patent attorney, who did not wish to be identified, Dirksing drafted a claim that covers not only the present model, but also other innovations which may be incorporated into the bat later, he said. He would not elaborate on those, pending his patent approval.

Dirksing’s patent lawyer expressed confidence that the variable-weight bat is sufficiently different from prior bats that a patent will be granted within a year or so.

The patent office could deny the application on the grounds that Dirksing’s bat is not novel or was obvious in light of existing products, but he doesn’t expect that to happen, he said.

The lawyer said although patent litigation can be very expensive, recent developments in patent law have been favorable in upholding patent rights. Also, it is not prohibitively expensive to obtain an injunction to prevent patent infringement, he said.

A valid patent also would put Dirksing in a much stronger bargaining position if he ever decides to sell the rights to a large sporting goods manufacturer, he said, since they are usually not interested in products with questionable legal standing.

Patent lawyer Peter J. Manso, with the Wood Herron & Evans law firm in Cincinnati, said the strength of a patent claim depends on how extensively an applicant searches prior developments and how broad he drafts his claim.

If an exhaustive search fails to turn up any comparable products, Manso said, then an inventor can have a very strong claim, giving him the right to exclude all others from making, using or selling the product for 17 years.

The only way someone could get around it, he said, would be to design around the existing patent or have the patent invalidated by showing that it was improperly issued, he said.

Blatant disregard for an existing patent is rare, he said, because courts can now impose treble damages for willful and wanton infringement.

The Crystal Ball Was A Bit Smudged This Year

POWER ON: Electricity will surge next year. As we enter a new era of e- commerce, look for Internet and in-store electronic sales to go full throttle. We’re not just talking computer sales — there will be in- store kiosks where consumers can activate a screen to make purchases. Kmart has added them, and it’s creating a new world of virtual retailing: fewer sales staff, less SKUs, more sales potential.

And don’t buy this talk shoppers have to see a shoe to buy it on a computer; that may be true for mature people, but to a 14-year-old who spends hours each night browsing Web sites, it’s an electronic world. They’ll soon be as comfortable buying womens running shoes for high arches and apparel on computer screens as they are purchasing books and CDs.

E-commerce is on the rise: A Kurt Salmon Associates survey found 59 percent of people own computers and 39 percent have online access. More than one quarter — 28 percent — go online one or more times a day, and KSA noted that’s more often than many visit a store. And 84 percent of those who purchase online are satisfied. It’s estimated the number of Web shoppers will rise to 128 million by 2002, representing $400 billion in e-commerce transactions.

WHY Y?: Graying baby boomers may grab marketers’ attention, but keep your eyes on Generation Y. Young teens today are fueling a major push in the fashion market, making their own statements with retro looks and electronic techno music. Even little kids are shopping specialty and high-end department stores. They’re setting new standards in what’s in and out, and they even have their own electronic fashion Web sites to purchase from. They are the most educated, wealthiest and computer- literate young generation in history.

NICHING UP: It’s niche time. The market can’t absorb too many more mass-market trends. Specialty footwear niches are coming forward and breaking new ground. It could be for the luxury market, cold weather styles, active casuals…whatever. But it may take smaller, creative concepts to flesh out retail sales projections. Remember when in-line skates, aqua sandals and comfort heel cups for plantar fasciitis were considered niche markets? Other new concepts will be out there breaking new ground.

NEW CUSTOMS: We live in a specialty world, and consumers increasingly want something special. Customization — or at least specialty sizing and fit — will be the answer in footwear. According to KSA, footwear rated poorly with consumers on fit. Only 36 percent were satisfied. And 36 percent would pay more to have certain items custom made. But while 28 percent have bought customized apparel, only 7 percent have had shoes custom made. Of those who have bought custom-made goods, 59 percent would do so again. KSA noted 14 percent would pay more for custom made shoes.

Some brands already are giving customers more choices. Nike’s Alpha project has shoes with one form of cushioning for size 7-10, another for 10 and up. Look for firms to start similar sizing trends this year as consumers respond.

A DEAFENING QUIET: Don’t expect shoe sales to turn around dramatically this year. No fashion trends are particularly hot, ad campaigns aren’t exactly setting consumer appetites on fire, and few firms have been that innovative or adventurous. Consumers perceive the industry malaise and are voting with their wallets. Voting not to buy, that is. People still need new comfortable shoes for bunion sufferers. The fashion world continues to roll out new themes and styles. But retail sales are quiet. Until something dramatically new comes along, cash registers may not be ringing too often.

THE CONSUMER SPEAKS: We’re entering the era of the consumer. They’ve been rising in power in recent years, but in 1999 will be more powerful than ever. It’s a new age of consumer behavior: They’re shopping less, buying fewer items, but still demand better service and sales help. They want to get in and out of stores quickly, with no hassles, but still expect a full selection and service. Look for consumers to get even more vocal and demanding next year.

KEEPING DRY: I’ve been predicting waterproof footwear would gain popularity for a while, but I really feel the timing is here: The weather across the world has been the worst in decades, with an ongoing string of hurricanes and tropical storms. And El Nino, or whatever it’s called these days, still is in the news.

Wet weather is everywhere, and consumers increasingly want footwear that guarantees their feet will stay dry. And while waterproof outdoor boots have gained popularity, better-grade styles — like those from Aquatalia — have stepped forward and proven style and waterproofing is a winning combination.

ATHLETIC GAINS: Enough already with this talk of athletic styles quieting down. Fashion cycles come and go, but time-tested categories stay alive. Look for athletics to hang in there and return near full force when casual and outdoor looks run their course. Of course, the basketball lockout won’t help sell. And research reveals team sports are less popular. But look for running to continue its comeback and tennis to continue its spurt. Casual styles have been strong, but in many regions in America, athletic shoes are a way of life. Consumers who have grown up with them may be experimenting with other looks, but they’ll be back. Maybe the real reason for the slowdown is marketing campaigns haven’t inspired people to run out and buy. But athletic shoe sales will rise again.

IT’S IN THE BANK: Dollar days used to be big at discount stores. This year they’ll be happening at banks. When the stock market surged years ago, people cut back savings as mutual funds shot up. Now that reality has sunk in, look for consumers to start shifting back to savings again. That’s not great news for retailers — if shoppers are stashing cash in savings accounts, they may choose not to run up big credit-card bills and extend debt. Impulse buying may be hampered, making it even more difficult to stimulate sales.