Rolling Plains company proud to produce major league bats

DEAN — It all started with a boy, a bat and a prayer.

 

Five years ago, Leland Wetzel never dreamed his life passion would be making wooden baseball bats — he just wanted to make a gift for his young nephew.

Fast forward to today, he and his business partner (and brother-in-law) Ross Harrison are on the brink of making bats for Major League Baseball players. It’s been a whirlwind journey, graced by God’s miracles along the way, they say.

In 2012, Wetzel decided he wanted to hand-make a baseball bat for his nephew Cy’s first birthday. The only problem was he had no idea how to make one.

Luckily, his grandfather, a hobby wood carver, taught him a few things and introduced him to a friend, Joe Broyles, who was skilled with a wood-working lathe.

Wetzel ordered some wood, and planned to meet up at Broyles house with his grandfather for a few hours of training.

“I was waiting outside the house for my grandpa to get there and I just prayed that the Lord give me a passion for it. I made my first bat, and he definitely did give me a passion for it,” Wetzel said.

He gave Cy’s family the bat, which they loved and displayed in his room. The tradition continued and Wetzel made bats for the first birthdays of the family’s other two children.

A fire was lit — he began watching tutorial videos, experimenting with different woods and discovering best practices.

He said he will never forget that feeling of hitting a ball with the first bat he ever made for himself, his second bat, that he keeps in his workshop.

“It’s something very special, hitting with a bat you made yourself,” he said.

Wetzel made a few bats for men at his church who played baseball. They told their friends how great they were and Wetzel made more bats.

“That’s when it really began to snowball,” he said.

By the end of 2013, Wetzel decided it was time to give a name to this burgeoning business.

Researching different languages and phrases, he came across the Greek prefix “xyol” meaning “made of wood.”

Between 2014 through 2017, things were steady for Wetzel. He made bats when he could while continuing his day job and spending time with his growing family. He and wife, Rachel had their daughter Stella in 2016.

In October 2016, some friends of the Wetzels who were military, originally from Minnesota, said they may have a very important baseball connection.

The family’s grandfather was friends with Joe Mauer, a first baseman with the Minnesota Twins. They said Mauer’s birthday was coming up and asked if Wetzel could make the player a bat.

“I said, ‘Of course!’ I grew up watching Joe play. I was honored they would ask me to make one for him,” he said.

Wetzel made a bat for Mauer to use off season (baseball bats used during MLB games must go through a strict vetting process and be pre-approved) and included a letter about who he was and what he believed in.

The friends took the bat to Mauer in Minnesota and reported he was very impressed with them. Wetzel did not hear directly from the player at the time, but was pleased enough that the bat was appreciated.

Months went by and Wetzel had a chance for a good-paying job.

“I could see myself working there, 40 years later, it could be a good career,” he said, “But in the back of my mind I knew what I wanted to do.”

In January 2017, Wetzel said he was considering closing the Xylo business. He prayed about the decision with his family. He eventually told his wife he felt the Lord was guiding him toward continuing his passion — one bat at a time.

That March, his Minnesota friend texted him saying he had good news. He received an email from Mauer saying he loved the bat and wanted to get more to use during practice for the upcoming MLB season.

Wetzel made three bats for Mauer, which he finished right before the Twins were scheduled to play the Texas Rangers in Arlington. They arranged for him to deliver the bats personally to Mauer.

The Wetzels made it a family trip with about a dozen other relatives.

Mauer loved the bats, kept two, hit a home run with the other, signed it and gave it back to Wetzel to keep.

While it was great to meet Mauer, Wetzel said he was especially excited about what the other players were saying about his bats.

Ever since that trip, Wetzel’s made it his goal to qualify to make bats for MLB teams.

The application process for making MLB-approved bats is a long and expensive one. Along the way, Wetzel found the perfect business partner — right in his own backyard.

Last year, Wetzel’s brother-in-law Harrison, a petroleum engineer by trade, was having a difficult time when the oil market changed. He could find work in other areas, spending weeks at a time away from his family, but he did not want to do that.

“I prayed to the Lord to provide from my family, and he did,” Harrison said.

Harrison found work with the family ranch where Wetzel was making bats in a small shed behind the hay barn.

That summer, Wetzel had more work than he could handle and asked Harrison for help painting and finishing the wood. Harrison found he enjoyed the work and quickly applied his skills to operate the fastest, smoothest bat-making process. Harrison built a larger workshop that they lovingly call the “bat barn.” The two knuckled down hard and fast making bats and applying for MLB approval.

“From April until now that’s what we’ve been working on,” he said.

In September, they hit a road block. Short on funds, they did not have enough wood to supply all the bats he needed to make.

“Something I learned that first year — you have to believe in what you pray for. You have to believe God is big enough to do crazy things,” he said.

He prayed that God would provide a solution. A couple weeks, later he was on Instagram and saw a the Chipstarter contest put on by Chip and Joanne Gaines, stars of the Texas-based television show “Fixer Upper.”

For the contest, participants made a video showing what their dream was and what they needed to get to the next step in that process.

Wetzel and a friend made their video they next day, talking about Xylo and his dream of making bats for MLB. That Tuesday, he was told out of 2,700 contestants from all over the world, he was one of the top six finalists.

Wetzel was invited to Waco to meet the Gaines and was awarded $25,000. At the meeting, Wetzel said he and Chip signed a piece of paper noting that moment and Chip asked him to sign another spot when he accomplished his goal.

The winnings went toward purchase of two pallets of billets (wood for bats). Wetzel and Harrison will need to make 100-200 bats for MLB spring training.

On major league teams, each professional player can use the bats of their choice. During spring training, Wetzel will visit MLB camps in Arizona and Florida touting his wares, hoping to land his big break. At the training, Wetzel said he will take about 50 bats to each camp, hand a bat to a player, tell him about the company and say if the player likes the bats let him know. The goal is to gain orders for bats. As word gets around, an order for a dozen bats can turn into hundreds or thousands.

Wetzel and Harrison in late January were notified that they were approved to make bats for MLB. Wetzel said he happily signed that second signature spot and told the Gaines about his success.

Xylo carries three varieties of bat that can be customized in countless ways. One thing that stays the same, though, is from the kid model to the professional, every bat is made with the same wood and the same exacting standards.

Wetzel and Harrison do not make a bat until it is ordered, so the customer gets the freshest bat possible.

The first lathe process takes about eight minutes to shape the bat. Then if goes to a hand-worked lathe where it is sanded and receives a hardening treatment using deer antler. Finally, a bat is stained, sealed and engraved. Including the drying process, making a Xylo bat takes three to seven days.

Wetzel said five years from now, they would love to be making 10,000-plus bats and be a household name for Major League teams.

His main goal has always been, though, to “spread His name” with the business.

“Each bat is not just a sale to us . The Lord has provided so far, it’s going to be a really exciting year,” Wetzel said.

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