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Issue Date: April 2012

Bat Man

Jeff Niesel

As he dips a baseball bat into a tall, white tube filled with translucent green paint, Johnny Smatana admits he isn't an expert woodworker. "I learned everything by trial and error," he says, as he hangs the bat on a drying rack alongside a handful of his other colorfully painted creations. As the owner of Johnnyville Slugger, a handmade baseball bat shop, Smatana has turned what started as a hobby into a business. The process begins in Twinsburg, where Smatana uses a lathe to shape each bat from a dowel of wood before bringing it to his Ohio City store, where he sands it by hand until it's "smooth as glass." Then, it's on to his Sagamore Hills home, where Smatana uses a laser to engrave a custom logo or signature. "I triple engrave everything," he says. "The engraving almost has a 3-D quality."

It's been about a year since Smatana signed a 30-year lease on a building along West 25th Street and transformed it into what he calls Johnnyville Slugger Men's Club. Today, Smatana has about 200 bats on display. His favorites include a pearl-white one adorned with a Marilyn Monroe sketch and a jet-black version emblazoned with Bob Marley's signature. Another bat has the Cleveland skyline etched in metallic blue paint.

The shop looks like a sports bar. Photos of legendary athletes such as Muhammad Ali adorn the walls, and a giant Johnnyville Slugger sign with a tropical motif sits above the glass window that separates showroom from workspace. More than just a store, the place is the ultimate man-cave.

Smatana started churning out his specialty baseball bats after purchasing a few quarantined pallets of oak, maple and ash dowels heading from Pennsylvania to Japan during his days working as an international trader. Five years ago, he built a barn to use as his workshop, but he ultimately realized he needed a retail space.

"I did 27 towns in 35 days," the 51-year-old says. "I went to Mentor and Akron and Kent. I went everywhere. There's a good feel here by the West Side Market."

A wiry guy who's retained his athletic frame, he mans the shop from noon until about 7 or 8 p.m. each night, sanding bats and talking smack with the locals who swing by the store. While Smatana has fun, it's also clear he feels a connection to his creations.

"It's the greatest gift you can give a guy that's under $200," he says. "There's something about the bat; I call it medieval magic, and it's like an artifact from the time of the caveman. It's all-American and more PC than a gun. I expect not only to get paid but to get hugged."

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