Winona bat company strikes a deal with Major League Baseball
A small bat company that started out as a hobby between friends has now reached their Major League dreams.
WINONA — When childhood best friends Zak Fellman and Dan Watson first turned their hobby of making baseball bats into a business in 2015, never could they have imagined the opportunity to create bats with art honoring their favorite baseball team: the Minnesota Twins.
Now, Fellman, Watson and their coworkers at Pillbox Bat Company, have achieved their Major League dreams, striking a licensing deal with Major League Baseball to officially design bats, pennants and other art for all 30 MLB teams.
“Every step of the way was a lot of work,” Fellman said about the application process for licensing with MLB. “It's a business plan, a fun business plan, having to project how much sales you're gonna do and how fast you can make the bats is a lot of work. It was a lot of effort but the whole team worked on it for months and we’re really happy with where we are now.”
Pillbox is located in an old metal shop on Third Street just a few blocks west of downtown Winona. The company has been in the building since 2017, renovating the space for their needs.
A year and a half ago, Pillbox struck a licensing deal with other MLB affiliated organizations such as the MLB Player Association, National Baseball Hall of Fame, and Negro League Baseball Museum.
The art they were able to make with their bats could include the likeness of active and former players — stars such as Juan Soto, Mike Trout and the Twins' own Byron Buxton — as well as Hall of Famers such as Cal Ripken Jr., Nolan Ryan and Al Kaline.
However, until this month, the teams these players have played on could not be included on the products without the licensing agreement with MLB.
Now with the MLB licensing agreement, Pillbox Bat Company is making exclusive designs for all 30 MLB teams, including bats for the Colorado Rockies that match their City Connect jerseys. Rockies fans will be receiving these bats next month during a promotional fan batting practice for season ticket holders.
Carrie Frederich, a Winona State University graduate who joined Pillbox in 2019, talked about the process of creating and receiving art designs from MLB teams and how they go onto the bats.
“Zach or myself will take designs we receive from MLB teams and create the computer file to create the vinyl stencils. I'll cut those out but usually we start with one coat of paint," Frederich said. "Once it's dry enough, we add a layering of tape and stencils for the design."
When the bats have one to two colors of paint on them, they are much quicker to finish for big bulk orders. However, when they have anywhere between four and six colors of paint, it can take longer than Frederich would prefer, but she still enjoys the process of the work each day. The only downside to her work, she said, is not seeing a fan’s first reaction to the finished artwork.
“That's one downside of doing these big projects is we ship them all off. Then we just wonder when they open the box, like, what's the reaction was,” Frederich said.
Fortunately for the Pillbox crew, they have videos of a few player and fan reactions to seeing their products for the first time sent to them. Most notable this season when a group of kids gifted Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Brett Phillips a Pillbox bat of his own.
Pillbox has made other popular art across the state of Minnesota, though not many people would immediately recognize it as their own. This past spring, Pillbox partnered with Summit Brewing Company to make their tap handles for the Twins Pills Beer that Summit has at Target Field and bars in all corners of Minnesota.
Pillbox remains a hidden gem even in its own backyard. Fellman, Watson and their coworkers are all mutual friends or had mutual connections between each other before all current employees began working together at Pillbox.
“Everyone's all friends,” Fellman said. “Chris, our main woodworker, he's my brother-in-law.”
Frederich added: “I knew a friend of mine that was working here and she was leaving. After that I walked in one day to buy a bat and Zak offered me a job there and I have been here ever since.”
“I had zero experience before working here,” said Kyle Wright, the company batsmith. “I started here in March of last year. I really like the woodworking part and sanding the bats, and just to be able to see how these bats start out to what they turn into.”
Having a workplace full of friends with a shared passion for America’s pastime has brought Pillbox Bat Company to where it is today. Now that they are making their art for the Major Leagues.
For Fellman and Watson, they still have a big league goal; getting the rights to make art of their childhood hero's image: Kirby Puckett.
“That was the first player we went after. We've talked to his family and it just hasn't gotten there yet. But with these new bats we’ve made for the Twins, we think it may be the final push to get there,” Fellman said.