Victus Sports sits at the end of a boring road in an unassuming office park behind the King of Prussia Mall. The brick-front shop is plain as can be, with a small sign on the top right corner of a building that’s shared with a company called “Restore Core,” which is where you go for help with water and fire damage to your business or home. Other companies in the vicinity include a duct cleaning service and real estate broker.
From the outside, you would not expect this location to house a wooden baseball bat maker known for creative flair and the bucking of trends, but you walk in and are immediately looking at a mounted and framed replica of the “We the People” bat that Bryce Harper swung in the 2018 Home Run Derby, which he won with 19 final round dingers. Immediately, you feel as though you’ve stepped out of the Upper Merion School District and into what looks like a side room in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
“The home run derby was that moment when people ask, ‘hey when did you know?‘ says Victus CEO and co-founder Jared Smith, who meets me in a storefront that runs adjacent to the entrance. “When Harper threw the bat like that after the derby I went nuts. He actually called me 30 minutes after and said ‘we did it kid.’ He knew how big of a moment it was.”
It was the moment for Victus, which was only seven years old at the time. The still-nascent local bat maker was looking for a big break and got it, with their name and logo clearly visible on a customized piece being swung by one of Major League Baseball’s biggest stars.
It was a watershed period for a company that began in Blackwood, New Jersey nearly 10 years ago, started by a couple of guys who had the passion for the craft, but needed to carve out their own foothold in a crowded niche market that had historically been dominated by only a few major brands. There wasn’t necessarily room for a new company to enter the field, but Victus gave it a shot anyway.
“Honestly it started in 2012,” Smith says, as we shift to a conference room off to the side. “We knew how to make bats, bought the lathe we have (in the back of the shop), and we started down a path of making pro-quality bats. We always bought the most expensive wood we could, and continued to refine the models and the product itself, as far as the process and designs. A lot of what we did early on was bucking tradition in that we’d do camo bats and all different colored logos, and that was our thing, was to enter in the market in a way to be a disruptor. I saw Rawlings, Louisville, and Marucci, who we’re partnered with now, and these companies that kind of fed on nostalgia. Not a lot of attitude. I felt like it was kind of boring in a way, so for us I wanted to add that flair to the game, you could say. And you can see that reflected in the players that represent our brand, like Fernando Tatis Jr. and Tim Anderson.”
Smith says the early days of Victus were anything but glamorous, explaining that there were “a few broke guys” in a shop working “all day, every day” and just trying to survive. They’d live at the shop and hustle, and while the work was hard, the focus and drive was always there.
“It’s not an overnight success story at all. It wasn’t like one day we said ‘boom, we made it,'” he explains.
Victus instead embarked on a steady journey that sees the company continue to add pro market share each year. They have a growing profile of MLB players who use their products, and made 20% of the bats that were swung on opening day in 2020. They sell more sticks, refine the product, and trend into new territory as well, working now on metal bats, batting gloves and bags, while continuing to have fun with apparel, which Smith describes as an “exciting space.” He also thinks fielding gloves will come at some point in the future and wants to continue to perfect the things Victus is already doing.
Smith doesn’t like the word “aggressive,” but settles for the word “assertive” in explaining how he wants the brand to expand its profile and try new things.
“What we’re doing, even stuff like these new batting gloves with straps (Smith holds up a new product), I love it, because it’s something that’s been out there for a little bit, but you’re taking it and putting your own twist on it. You’re trying to make a high-quality product, that when you put the Victus logo on it, you’re super proud to have it. That stuff, to me, is so cool to see, knowing how this logo was originally designed, how the brand was selected, and all the work that went into it. Now you see it all over the big leagues and all over ballparks all over the world. That’s awesome.”
(Victus founders Jared Smith and Ryan Engroff)
Smith is a Hershey native, along with his original business partner Ryan Engroff, who is still with Victus. They quickly outgrew the original New Jersey facility years ago, and were looking for the “right location,” but settled in King of Prussia because the area and the layout worked for them. It also meant less time sitting on the Schuylkill Expressway, which we can all agree is a significant upgrade.
The unique thing about Victus is the flair and attitude that you see in the designs. Colorful displays with player faces and names. Team mascots. They’ve done bats with Gritty and the Phillie Phanatic. Inside the shop, there’s merchandise for sale, one item a hat with a skull logo that wouldn’t look out of place on the Wildwood boardwalk or in a San Diego tattoo shop.
The curious thing is that this all runs somewhat antithetical to old school baseball traditionalism and the MLB rulebook, which has specific stipulations on equipment use and design. Right now players aren’t allowed to use colored bats in a professional game unless approved by the Rules Committee, which means you’re seeing the flashy Victus bats appear strictly on social media or at the derby or in other non-game scenarios. The sticks that are used in game have plain designs.
“It was a calculated decision to be that type of brand,” Smith points out. “But at the same time, it was what we felt like we wanted. We were all baseball players, and we saw what was available at Dick’s Sporting Goods, and we saw what was available online. It just seemed like (we) were doing the next step of what should be done and what hadn’t been done yet. For us, there was definitely a risk associated with it, but it just seemed to be super logical. Why wouldn’t you put a knob sticker on the end of the bat? That’s cool. People are going to like it. Why wouldn’t you let people choose all of these crazy colors? They’re going to like it. It started with ‘volt,’ that greenish/yellow color. That was one of those first neon colors that was everywhere. So we jumped on that and rode it hard and then came up with some of our own ideas, and that was being dialed in to what’s going on in the baseball world, vs. a company like Nike, which is driving the market and crushing it. They make baseball jerseys and cleats but they don’t make bats, and you look at bat companies and there are a lot of mom and pop shops without a lot of taste.”
At this point, Smith pauses to consider his words.
“I wouldn’t want to say that and sound like a dick, but it’s less about style and more about the nostalgia. They’re making a bat on the lathe, carving it by hand, dipping it in lacquer, and it’s ‘this is what we do and this is how it’s always been.’
It’s an interesting intersection between baseball parochialism and contemporary personality, and Victus essentially straddles the line. You could say that the brand is moving in congruence with a macro-level call for baseball to open up to new ideas and loosen restrictions. Smith is respectful of the guidelines, and reticent to rock that boat too much, but instead points to the relatively new MLB Players Weekend and alternate jerseys that Nike is making.
“They’re doing cool stuff and allowing for cooler stuff on the field, and I think it’s getting younger eyeballs to look, but other sports are still so far ahead,” he says. “We want to do our part to help bring that ‘cool’ factor to the field. We’re not doing Nickelodeon home run balls yet, but maybe we should be. It’s one of those things where I truly want to see the future of baseball grow. To see it become a positive thing where the sport grows and it becomes more popular. At the same time, the game has to evolve a bit and get more fun for kids and continue to be more entertaining.”
“We need to play by the rules, and we do play by the rules, but at the same time I would like to see it continue to evolve because I think it’s good for the game.”
(a Victus employee takes a few swings in a batting cage located inside the company’s King of Prussia headquarters)
Meeting “The Bat King”
Bruce Tatem laughs when I ask him for his official title. It seems like something he never considered, what he would write on a business card or a Linkedin profile.
Like most artists, Tatem, also known as “The Bat King,” is hyper-focused on his craft. He’s a jovial and engaging guy who is excited to share his work and stresses that his nickname is not the result of having “a big head.”
He joined up with Victus about 15 months ago, and you’ve seen his art before, some of it on this website. He did Harper’s Phillie Phanatic bat and his designs range from player faces to dollar signs, an off-beat seltzer brand, and even one of the characters from the Rick and Morty television show. They’re unique and colorful and engaging pieces.
“I got kind of lucky because Victus contacted me through another artist,” Tatem admits. “I don’t know if the guy didn’t want the job or what, but he passed on my name, and they had some Natural Light (the beer) bats that they wanted to have done, and they were looking for condensation and all of this stuff. So I did that project for them and they really liked it a lot. Then I believe Jonny Gomes reached out to Jared and he wanted a bat done, so I went all out on that. I did money symbols on the handle. I did skulls. I did everything. I think it was that moment where I dropped the bat off, and (Victus) was like, ‘we don’t want him to leave.’
“For me the wheels just started spinning,” Smith interjects. “Because for me, (fellow designer Ryan “Diesel” Smith) is incredible and super-talented, but Bruce is a trained artist in a way that we never had before. It took what we were doing and elevated it to this crazy level, where there’s so much potential for the creativity that he has.”
Tatem says he was intrigued by the idea of coming to work every day with “free range” to design bats. He had previously done a variety of work that included air brushing motorcycles and goaltender hockey masks. He worked on pretty much any canvas imaginable, but this was something new and exciting.
“Once I did the Natural Light bat I thought ‘wow, this is kind of cool,’ Tatem says. “My background is automotive. I still do motorcycle art, but I love the bat canvas. It’s a lot smaller and there’s a lot less prep work, but I love the canvas. It’s just something where I feel like I have a knack for it. I custom paint shoes, but not as good as guys who do it all the time. So over the time of me doing bats, I feel like I have a full grasp of layout and design. They let me go back into this corner room and just design. I would come out with some stuff that was on-brand, and some stuff that was off-brand. I guess it took us probably five to six months before I got a feel for what they really wanted and they got a feel for what I really could do. We did a couple of projects in that time, like donation bats for the hurricane in Puerto Rico and wildfires in Australia, and a Mother’s Day bat, but then once we started getting into a flow, it was like, ‘okay man go do your thing.’ The Fernando Tatis Jr. bat was one where Jared lit up, and I was thinking ‘alright, wow, no revisions!‘”
(Bruce Tatem air brushes an avocado bat for Jason Dominguez)
When you walk through the Victus building, it takes a decent amount of time to get to Tatem’s work station. He’s in the corner, at the far end of the shop, with separate design areas for computer work and the actual air brushing and art application. He’s even got a staging area with professional lighting equipment used for official shop photography.
Prior to reaching that area, you walk through a room featuring numerous shelves stacked with uncut wooden dowels. The racks are organized by wood type and the pieces need to be weighed and sorted when delivered to the factory. It’s essentially a math equation, with each bat having a specific size, shape, and volume. They’re numbered and labeled before being placed on the shelves.
The lathes that are used to cut and shape the bats are known as “CNC,” which in layman’s terms means that the designs are programmed in via computer. I watched as one of the dowels was placed in the machine and cut with an axe-handle design, which is being used these days by players like Mookie Betts and George Springer. It’s an ergonomically-shaped handle gaining popularity among pros, and it basically runs with a bit of a curve at the end of the bat, so that your hands aren’t bumping into the knob in awkward fashion.
(The Victus X4 Custom Pro Reserve is cut with an axe handle)
For Tatem, the process begins with him writing down what a client wants. Then he’ll mock up his ideas on pieces of paper that have bat diagrams laid out on them, almost like a sketch book with the individual pages ripped out. Sometimes he can run with an original idea and begin the job, but most times he’ll rely on the computer.
“Back in the day, if you wanted to cut stencils, you had to do it all by hand,” he says. “It’s something I can do, but if I have to replicate it a hundred times it’s going to be impossible. So what I do is I’ll sit down and design and then take it from the program, cut it off, and then I can replicate as many times as I need to. But I’ll sit down and design, cut my stencils, and go out to (the other work area) and start applying. The process doesn’t get real complicated. I’ll start with drawings and then mock it up and get to work. Sometimes some stuff I’ll just start writing on the bat. I did a Grinch bat for Marucci that they posted around Christmas. That was for Francisco Lindor. That bat I just started airbrushing on and it came into what it was.”
Smith notes that Tatem’s work doesn’t come without feedback. It’s not full autonomy, but there’s a great working relationship. He’ll be overly-involved in brand-related things and had to navigate an early push-and-pull when Tatem came on board.
“For a little while there it was a bit of a war, where it was like, ‘well you said this, or you meant this,'” says Smith, with a laugh. “Every artist is a pain in the ass. But I encourage that. If you ever disagree with me, tell me. Let me know. Bruce is on an island a lot, but it’s not like he’s out there stranded. We’re all collaborating and dropping clever ideas throughout these meetings. Anything can happen, where we pull inspiration from any part of Victus. I really feel like the brand has a piece of every employee that’s involved.”
One thing that sticks out to me is how good the bats look in person. Tatem has dozens mounted on the wall and propped up around his workshop. They look snazzy in pictures but there’s something about spinning the bat in your hands and seeing how the design rolls with a unique cylindrical canvas. It’s artwork in a much different format, and something that Tatem is really proud of.
“I told Jared that it’s more about legacy, because my son is 14 and he loves bats and all of that stuff. And I’d like to hand down something, whether it’s for him or another artist, something that was started that they can keep going. As an artist you want to live forever, and you do it through your art.”
(Tatem did all of the bats on this rack)
Looking toward the future
Smith admits that before the Harper episode of 2018, there were a lot of questions floating around. What could they do with the brand? What was next for them?
They had partnered with rival bat manufacturer Marucci only a few months prior, in an acquisition agreement that seemed to make sense for both sides. In the press release announcing the deal, Marucci CEO Kurt Ainsworth used the same language Smith used in this interview, identifying the brand as a “disruptor” in the market:
“Marucci immediately recognized itself in Victus as a new, disruptive, innovative brand and after further diligence, found their premium brands were born of the same DNA – a player-centric philosophy and obsessive attention to quality.
“Victus will energize Marucci to continue to be a disruptor in our industry, and Marucci will accelerate Victus’ growth into all product categories,” Ainsworth said.”
Sometimes transformative business deals like this can change a brand forever, in ways both positive and negative. But now, almost four years after the acquisition, Victus is humming along, and it all comes back to Harper and the Home Run Derby.
“It took us through what I thought was the stratosphere right there,” says Smith of the 2018 event. “We took the whole crew down to D.C. and rented a place. Probably 10 of us were at the derby. Five stayed back at the house to watch on TV and see it and hear it. But it was one of those experiences that makes all of the hard work and long nights worth it. We had a few of those moments, starting probably with Jonny Gomes in the World Series, hitting that game-tying home run, and then the Red Sox went on to win it. That was the first (moment) that I can remember that made me feel that way. Then there was Harper, and last year Tatis, Jr. with the bat flip. Those were moments in time where we were like, ‘how can we be so lucky to time this exactly like this?‘ They were crazy breaks.”
Several times in our discussion Smith reiterates that he’s running a business, but has a group of passionate people who truly enjoy what they do. They grew up playing baseball and work their tails off, so there’s an authenticity with a product being designed by people who remain directly involved with the sport. Nine years later, that debut mindset has not worn off, not with any of the original employees or new additions.
“I know it’s not all money-driven,” Tatem says. “Almost everybody here still plays baseball or is still involved in some way. And that pushes me. I coach 13, 14, and 15 year olds. So I love going to practices and saying ‘hey what do you guys think of this new design I’m working on?‘ They’re my first feedback. I’ve been air brushing for a long time, and I’ve done everything from five year olds to 17 year olds, their batting helmets. Baseball has areas like this, or a catcher’s mask, where it can be customized or made personal. Everything my son has is customized. And it would just be nice to see these (Major leaguers), they’re playing for the love of the game, but I’d like to see them be able to express that.”
And ultimately that evolution is out of Victus’ hands. They are, after all, playing by the rules that MLB sets and don’t want to overstep their boundaries, or push too hard. In a way, they’re subconsciously reliant on players like Tatis, Jr. and Harper to amplify the product by using it, promoting it, and sharing ideas that match those of the company.
“When you look at Harper with the Phillie Phanatic, that dynamic is awesome,” Smith says. “It encourages kids to be involved with it. It’s a thing the media can run with. It attracts fans. They understand there’s a ‘thing’ between the two of them. And Bryce is incredible with stuff like that, especially now being a dad. You can tell he’s big into it (the cultural off field stuff). It’s fun to watch these guys grow up, too. I’m in a position now where I’ve been in it for nine years and I’ve seen Bryce from his rookie season up until now. And some kid came in recently and his mom showed me a picture, where they brought him in for his 10th birthday, and now he’s 18 and going to a Division 1 school. This kid rakes. It’s so cool. He told me he was on his 11th Victus Bat.”
(Bryce Harper with his Phanatic bat, photo shared by the Phillies on Twitter)