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Sunday, January 29, 2023

On Deck

As a kid, Alan Hart played sandlot baseball. As a parent, he coached two daughters on fast-pitch softball teams. As a grandfather, he developed a new baseball bat. Five years ago, Hart noticed the frustration his grandchildren, then toddlers, experienced hitting rubber balls with plastic bats. America’s pastime should be fun, Hart thought, and with children’s developing coordination skills, that’s hard to do.

As a 20-year maintenance man at T.J. Maxx’s distribution facilities on Lynch Road, Hart isn’t an inventor by trade, but his job requires ingenuity, Hart says, and developing solutions to mechanical problems comes with the occupation. After watching his grandchildren’s aggravation, Hart headed for his workbench, lopped off the end of a long plastic bat, and hollowed a ball that slid onto the bat. With a swing from a child, the makeshift ball flies off the end like connecting to a thrown pitch. It allows tykes to master the mechanics of the baseball swing without the disappointment of missed pitches.

The toy fascinated Hart’s grandchildren, who have the typical attention span of any active toddler. Hart’s mind flashed back to an October with his late father-in-law, Dave Lappe. The two were wading through the crowds of the Fall Festival, the annual oasis of fried foods, when Hart noticed the popularity of slapbracelets among children. The slapbracelets were decorative plastic pieces designed to snap from a rigid line to a curved wrist, and Lappe noted simple, affordable items could make a man rich. The idea stayed with Hart, and when his grandchildren were swinging for the fences with Hart’s new invention, he knew this was the opportunity Lappe had told him about.

This fall, his new toy debuted — to rave reviews — but still, this is the toy that almost never was.

Hart needed a toy company to manufacture the bat. At the time, he didn’t have a computer and the widespread reach of the Internet. Without toy manufacturers at his fingertips, Hart headed to toy stores, wrote company names down on paper, and went to the public library. There, a librarian helped him set up an e-mail account. He nicknamed the toy “Flingball,” looked up company addresses, and sent e-mails and letters to the business leaders in the toy industry describing his idea. He wrote several messages a week for three years.

Despite rejections or ignored requests, Hart tinkered with his toy. He bought tools like a keyhole saw to build test toys with different materials such as wood, aluminum, and plastic for the bats and rubber and foam for the balls. He visited Wesselman Park on Saturdays and asked groups of children to play with his new toy. Hart was the inventor, researcher, and marketer. He applied for a patent. He waited.

In 2008, he noticed a discarded box at work that once held a toy rocket launcher from Portland, Ore.-based Monkey Business Sports. Hart e-mailed the company, and president Cole Larner responded.

The first toy from Larner’s company came in 1994. The product, named the Spiderball, was from the mind of a gym teacher, who wanted his less-athletic students to learn the mechanics of catching without the frustration of failed attempts. Sound familiar? Designed with a fun face, the colorful, bouncing ball has numerous rubber legs that fan out when thrown, slowing the ball’s speed and giving more time to children with developing hand-eye coordination to make adjustments for the catch.

From there, Larner developed Monkey Business Sports, a producer of toys with fun names: Switchblade Boomerang, Stomp Walkers, and HoverBlade. Larner noticed Hart’s invention “matches up with our toy category, which is a simple design enhancement on the traditional play pattern,” says Larner, meaning he liked that the bat didn’t contain electronic devices, didn’t flash and buzz with lights and sounds, and didn’t need a battery. “It helps kids learn how to swing a baseball bat,” Larner says. “That’s wonderful. That’s our national pastime.”

That’s the potential Larner saw in Hart’s project. “Ideas stand on their own merit,” he says. “Anybody can create if they allow themselves to refine an idea and then be brave enough to present it and ignore the folks who say, ‘You can’t do that.’ Why would you not be able to? It’s the concept that is significant.”

The bat works best as a foam product, making it safer and softer for toddlers and giving them a valuable lesson in the art of the swing. And Hart’s flingball became the E-Z Bat, which debuted this fall — just in time for the holidays. (Flingball already was coined as an English-made dog toy.) Already, it’s receiving rave reviews from toy experts and famed mommy bloggers such as Jabbering Jessi, who wrote, “I think Monkey Business Sports hit the nail on the head with this bat.” Actually, it was Hart.

To learn more, visit www.monkeybusinesssports.com.

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