NORWALK — Pete Tucci’s wife noticed a perceptible difference in his demeanor since his promising major league baseball career was cut short by a hand injury in 2002.
Tucci, a 1993 graduate of Norwalk High School, was one of the best players to come out of the FCIAC, earning a scholarship to Providence and, in 1996, getting drafted in the first round by the Toronto Blue Jays.
Baseball ran a close third to food and sleep as the staples in Tucci’s life. His playing days finished and dream dashed, Tucci joined his brother in law as partners in a heating and air conditioning company.
But Tucci’s true passion lingered on.
And Amy Tucci had seen a change in her husband.
“She told me I had to get back in baseball somehow,” Tucci said. “She said each year I had changed and become less and less of the person she married. She said you have to find a way to get back at some level. Not necessarily a full-time thing, but for your own level of happiness.”
Through events serendipitous and tragic, the player who once excelled with a bat has finally reached the top level — making them. Tucci Lumber begins its fifth year with over 130 major league baseball players using its bats. The two highest profile ones are now also investors in the company. And Tucci just moved his business into a 10,000 square foot facility in South Norwalk, 40 times the size of his previous location.
Tucci has become Fairfield County’s true Bat Man.
“The second bat I made is still the same process we use, the same nuts and bolts,” Tucci said earlier this week from his new complex, which will have its grand opening on April 11. “The only changes is we added machines and upped production.”
Tucci began toying with making bats as a hobby. He then had to deal with the untimely death of his brother in law.
Tucci sold their business and used the proceeds, along with his personal savings, to start Tucci Lumber. The company’s meteoric rise paralleled Tucci’s own playing career.
Part of the success has come from a seemingly counterintuitive approach by Tucci, who reached Double A ball and finished with 84 home runs and 384 RBIs in six seasons.
“I just truly believed most bat companies come from a woodworking background, and I came at it from a different background,” he said. “I came from the reverse, knowing what the end product needed to be but not knowing how to make it. I had to learn the process. Others knew the process but not what the end product needed to be.
“A lot of it is self-taught. Countless hours at 2 in the morning in the garage, tinkering around making bats until I got it right. A lot of it was on the painting end of it.”
Amy now paints all of the bats for major league players herself.
“I’m biased but I think the bats look cool,” Tucci said. “I got them to the point I thought they looked as good as anyone else’s, but she got them to the point I think they look better.”
Having his bats seen regularly on television has been the greatest marketing tool. Tucci’s product was first used by softball players. He now supplies bats to the Bridgeport Bluefish and many players at all levels of summer leagues where wood bats are used.
After two years of mastering the craft, in 2011 Tucci was ready to try and get his bats to the same level where he was once on a fast track as a player.
“I felt confident I had the product down and it would do well at the pro level,” Tucci said. “Once I decided I wanted to try and make this my profession I had to try and get in as soon as possible.”
Realizing he would need more financial backing to reach his goals, he became partners with a friend, Sean Mathews of Stamford. He became certified by Major League Baseball on a limited approval period in January of 2012. He had until March 18, or would have to wait again until the following year.
“We had a three-week window in spring training to get someone to use our bats,” Tucci said.
The first player to sign on was Gaby Sanchez. The first real prominent name was Nick Swisher, who was then with the Yankees. By the All-Star break of that year, 11 Yankees were swinging with Tucci Lumber bats.
“It was pretty cool, and it really hasn’t diminished,” Tucci said. “The first time someone called me on the phone and said Nick Swisher is up and using one of your bats against the Orioles, I raced home. My wife and I then went to a game and got caught in traffic and didn’t get there until the third inning. Literally the first pitch we saw Nick Swisher hit a home run with our bat. That’s was kind of cool. That was the first home run I saw with our bats. It was surreal.”
Tucci said 55 players used his bats that first year, a figure that has now close to tripled. Two of the most prominent current players are the Rockies’ Troy Tulowitzki and the Giants’ Pablo Sandoval. They now are also capital investors in Tucci Lumber.
“That was a huge credibility boost,” Tucci said. “We are doing very well at the MLB level any way, but to have two All-Star-caliber guys saying not only do I believe in these bats so much that I want to use them, but I believe in the company so much I want to put my money in it…”
That allowed Tucci to open his new facility, where he will be able to double his current output of 70 bats a day and 10,000 annually.
“It went this year from I think 30 to 36 companies certified, and your first reaction is six more bat companies,” Tucci said. “I’m sure some companies had the same reaction when I came in. It is what it is. This is still the early stages in my mind. We still have a long way to get a bigger share of the market, but it is pretty exciting.”