If there's one thing that unites professional baseball players of all levels, it's a seemingly unceasing oral fixation. Sunflower seeds, bubble gum and, most prominently, chewing tobacco are an integral part of the sport's culture. Without them, many players would feel as naked as stepping up to the plate without a baseball bat.
Chewing tobacco's deleterious effects are well documented; whatever temporary buzz that may be obtained is far outweighed by the serious health risks. The product has been banned outright in the Minor Leagues since 1993 (although many players still use it away from the playing field), and commissioner Bud Selig has gone on the record in favor of doing the same in the Majors.
But what, if anything, could effectively replace such a time-honored part of a ballplayer's routine? Matt Canepa and Pat Pezet, former ballplayers-turned-entrepreneurs, think they've found the answer: Grinds.
At first glance, Grinds is strikingly similar to the look and feel of smokeless tobacco. The product is packaged in the same circular containers that have bulged out of ballplayers' back pockets since time immemorial, and located therein are moistened rectangular pouches containing a sticky black substance. But in this case, the substance is coffee. Each can contains the equivalent of five cups of coffee -- a quarter cup per pouch -- and the product is bolstered with energy-producing Taurine and B vitamins as well.
Canepa and Pezet became friends while playing baseball together at California Polytechnic State University. Canepa, a catcher, was drafted by the Cubs in 2006 and went on to play two seasons in the Minors. ("A lot of players get hurt, but my injury was my bat. I never could find one that worked," he joked.) Canepa returned to Cal Poly after being released, rooming with Pezet. The idea that became Grinds came about during this period, while Canepa and Pezet were working together on an economics class project.
"It was late at night and we wanted an energy kick," recalled Canepa. "So being college students and baseball players, we threw some coffee grounds in our mouths. The whole thing just grew from there. We didn't think much of it until winning first place in a school-wide business competition, where we had to tell a panel of judges what we were planning to do. It wasn't until then that we knew really had something."
But what they always had was the name.
"I've got to give Pat credit for that one; he's always been good with the slogans," said Canepa. "Not only does Grinds mean coffee, but the term is also synonymous with baseball. To succeed, you've really got to keep grinding it out. You're playing a lot of games."
Building the buzz
Grinds was first mass produced in early 2010, with an initial run of 1,000 cans. From the start, the duo has pursued a simple and thus far effective business plan -- to build the brand through baseball.
"We knew that our product would fit into the culture of baseball, and once it was accepted into the culture, then we could go on from there," said Pezet. "As Grinds becomes synonymous with Major and Minor League Baseball, we can use that to market it in a retail context."
The first step in this strategy was to get Grinds into the hands of professional ballplayers. To do so, Canepa and Pezet spent 2010 Spring Training driving from complex to complex, handing out the product to their network of baseball contacts. Many of these individuals, such as Brent Morel of the White Sox and Bud Norris of the Houston Astros, are fellow Cal Poly products. Another key connection was former pitcher and current San Francisco broadcaster Mike Krukow, whose son Baker coached at Cal Poly. Krukow passed along Grinds to Giants manager Bruce Bochy, who credited it with helping him kick his tobacco habit.
And so it has gone. The initial run of 1,000 cans grew to 10,000 for 2011 Spring Training, and the most recent order was for 30,000 more. ("Cinnamon Roll" and "Chocolate Mint" are now available in addition to the original "Mocha" flavor). Grinds has been used by players in all 30 Major League organizations, and the company's website features testimonials from a wide cross-section.
"There's a good reason that it's been well received, because the whole mind-set behind the product is that it can help get guys off of tobacco," said Canepa. "Things are starting to get interesting now. We've got bigger names using our product, and have been getting calls from agents on behalf of their clients."
Canepa and Pezet would ultimately like to enter into an official partnership with Major and Minor League Baseball, making Grinds the sport's "official tobacco alternative." But such a relationship won't in and of itself generate much of a profit, if any. Rather, it will serve as a selling point as Grinds is marketed to an audience above and beyond the world of baseball.
"The idea is to get our brand in front of the public," said Canepa.
"If having baseball behind us keeps us ahead of the competition, then we'd be happy to keep supplying [the players] for free," added Pezet.
The next step
In tandem with building the brand within baseball, Canepa and Pezet are now working on ways to sell their product to the public at large. The caffeine naturally found in coffee as well as the addition of supplements such as Taurine allows Grinds to be marketed as an energy booster, potentially opening up a whole new audience.
"That's the beauty of it," said Canepa. "We've gotten emails from people can't drink coffee in the morning because it's too acidic, and this is another way to get that fix."
And unlike tobacco, spitting is optional when using Grinds.
"It's discreet. You can spit if you want, but you don't have to," said Pezet. "We've toyed around with different slogans like 'Coffee you can brew in your mouth,' but it's probably too provocative to use that too soon."
"It's great for military guys and police and firefighters," he continued. "Guys who can't just be standing around with a cup of coffee in their hands."
This "portable energy " angle, combined with the cachet that comes from being intimately associated with professional baseball, is causing Canepa and Pezet to think big. Though Grinds has been test-marketed in retail locations on a limited basis, the ultimate goal is for the product to be widely recognized and widely available.
"We're building our product through a game loved by millions," said Pezet. "This is our national pastime, and we want Grinds to be a part of it."
And if the product's success comes with any side benefits, then all the better.
"Our real end goal with all of this is to leverage a tryout and get back into playing," said Pezet, tongue planted firmly in cheek. "If any teams out there want to put us on the 40-man [roster], that'd be great."