For the first time in 30 years, Chuck Schupp spent Opening Day like most fans: watching games on TV, flipping through channels and trying to catch as much baseball as possible.
The view from the couch is an unusual perspective for Schupp, whose work for Louisville Slugger over the past three decades brought him to every clubhouse in the majors, where everyone seemed to know his name.
"It's definitely an adjustment from the past," said Schupp, who retired this spring from his post as Louisville Slugger's director of professional baseball sales, a job that made him the ultimate baseball insider.
Schupp was the face of Louisville Slugger for major leaguers, the man who handled all of their bat needs. The job, which Louisville Slugger described in a press release as a baseball fan's dream, called for Schupp to provide players their Slugger bats and be an equipment matchmaker of sorts, one who sought to fit each player with the right piece of lumber. He would meet with each of his clients—a figure he estimates to be roughly 45 percent of big leaguers—and brought any of their concerns back to the engineers at Louisville Slugger's factory.
And to do his job, Schupp had to travel to every ballpark, spend time in the clubhouse and develop bonds with the players.
"Chuck was Louisville Slugger to these guys in baseball," said James Sass, Schupp's successor as Slugger’s bat guy.
Just five people have served as Slugger's director of professional baseball sales during the company's 130-year history, and Schupp admits it was not easy to give up. "It's been great. It is the job everyone talks about, gets excited about," Schupp said. "I've been fortunate to have it this long."
The job brought him to every major league ballpark each year—he opened last season passing out Silver Slugger awards to Joey Votto in Cincinnati and Buster Posey in San Francisco—where he developed relationships with a variety of players, managers and front-office staff. And that's what he's going to miss the most.
"I'm going to miss the clubhouse. I'm going to miss the conversations with the players," said Schupp, who is opening his own business advising and connecting players with post-retirement career opportunities. “It's a privilege to be in there. That's their office and you're allowed in it. You don't take that for granted . . .
"Those conversations in the clubhouse are what you miss the most. The travel is hard. That stuff in the factory, that's not sexy. But at the end of the day, it's the relationships with the players that makes the job so special."
Among the big leaguers who Schupp says he has developed close friendships with over the years are: Craig Biggio, Bruce Bochy, Aaron Boone, Joe Girardi, Goose Gossage, John Kruk, Barry Larkin, Don Mattingly, and Tim Wakefield.
"I always enjoyed Chuck. He is interesting and really knows his craft," Orioles Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. said in a Slugger press release. "Chuck is a guy who always has a smile on his face, and he is a terrific baseball guy. He was the ultimate pro, and he really understands the relationship between a player and his bat. I hope Chuck enjoys his well-earned retirement."
The job wasn't all fun and glamor, Schupp said. He had to learn how to handle a variety of personalities and background—"from a guy who went to an Ivy League school to a kid who grew up in the Dominican to a kid drafted out of high school," he said—deal with an increasingly competitive market (at least 28 companies are licensed to make bats) and spend a lot of time on the road.
"People see just the tip of what you do as far as meeting the players and that is all well and good, but there is a lot more to it," Schupp said. “You have to deliver products to the players, satisfy as many as you can and make the brand visible. A lot that goes into that: dealing with the factory production people, player agents, just a lot of facets. You have to have good relationships with a lot of the equipment managers. There are a lot of people you have to touch and a lot of people whose trust you have to gain. It's a very competitive business."
Sass says he is eager to take on that challenge for Schupp, though he knows there will be a learning curve. A 23-year veteran of Louisville Slugger and former minor leaguer in the Brewers system, Sass previously handled all of Slugger's aluminum and composite bat development and most recently oversaw the company's international bat clients. Though the product and customers will be different, Sass says the mission is the same.
The thing players are looking for with bats of any kind, be they wood, aluminum, composite or hybrid, is largely the same: “They want to swing something they are comfortable with, so the balance of that is going to be important," Sass said. "The overall performance of the bat is No. 1. Swing weight, the sweet spot, the sound, the feel when the ball makes contact with the bat . . . All of those tings go into the performance of the bat. That is still the thing players are going to be looking for. Performance is No. 1, and with that the player having confidence in the bat. If the player has confidence, then you've won.”
Sass realizes he's won as well with this coveted position. "Using the word ‘job’ is probably not the right term," he said with a chuckle.
He also knows he has big shoes to fill.
"You don't step in and have the relationships that Chuck has," Sass said. "That's 30 years of experience. I have to earn these guys' respect that I am a guy that's going to work with them."