This is the first in the "Still in the Game" series, which chronicles former area high school and college athletes who have pursued a professional career that keeps them involved with athletics.
QUINCY -- A little bit of aggravation led to inspiration and gave Jason Rakers a hobby that has kept him involved with the game he dearly loves.
And it took playing to make it all possible.
A two-time All-Great Lakes Valley Conference and all-region third baseman at Quincy University, Rakers spent two seasons in the San Diego Padres organization and a year in the Frontier League before shifting his focus to education and family. He became a teacher, a coach and eventually a school administrator back home in Clinton County.
All the while, Rakers needed an athletic outlet that could be social as well. Golf seemed the most logical choice.
"It didn't work for me," Rakers said. "It's fun hanging out with friends, but it's not much fun hanging out with friends when all it does is make you say bad words. I'm not usually a guy who says bad words."
So he gave up on golf.
"But I needed a hobby," Rakers said.
That's when inspiration hit. He decided to make his own wooden baseball bats. So he bought a woodworking lathe, picked some quality timber and made a couple bats.
"A lathe isn't a huge investment," Rakers said. "I figured the worst I was out $500."
That's cheaper than most sets of golf clubs.
"So I jumped in and it's been great," Rakers said.
It's been better than expected.
"The neighborhood hobby turned into the county-wide hobby turned into the Midwest-wide hobby," Rakers said. "It's still a hobby that's turned into something a little bigger than that."
It's become Midwest Timber Bat Company, which produces hand-made wooden bats tailored specifically for the hitter.
"Every bat is unique," said Rakers, who estimates he's made 150-200 bats since late November. "The color combinations are an extension of the person. You're getting a bat with your favorite colors, your wording, your handle. People who are really into it pick their own handle and barrel and specifications.
"When we were kids, you got a bat and didn't think about those things. You were tickled to have a bat. This is taking bats to another level because they are an extension of your personality and made to your liking."
All the work is done in his workshop, which overlooks a pond on his family property in Clinton County.
"It's really peaceful," Rakers said. "I live out in the country and I enjoy the peacefulness that comes with getting away and making bats."
It's turned into a family endeavor as well.
"My son helps on the lathe from time to time and certainly helps with the painting process," Rakers said. "My wife helps with the programming for the wording."
All the bats are made from ash or maple and designed for use with the proper weight and length specifications. There are a variety of color combinations for every bat with one color for the handle and one for the barrel. There are single color bats and fired bats with no paint.
Midwest Timber also sells fungo and youth bats, weighted bats, mini bats, glove mallets and bottle openers.
Everything is made to order.
"I ask the parents, if they don't mind, to send me a picture of their kid with their bat," Rakers said. "Seeing the smile on a kid's face when they get their own bat is priceless."
Rakers was 22 years old when he had someone make a bat with his name on it.
"I remember that moment like it was yesterday," Rakers said.
He's now providing that thrill for another generation, and it's keeping him in the game.
Rakers is enshrined in the Breese Mater Dei, Kaskaskia College and Quincy University Halls of Fame and holds the Hawks' career record for batting average at .431 -- the only player in program history with a mark of .400 or better. In 1997, he set the single-season record for RBIs with 74, a mark that since has been passed by Kevin Sewell (85 in 2004) and Ryan Snyder (88 in 2016).
Rakers was drafted in the 34th round by the Padres in the 1997 amateur draft and was an all-star in the Frontier League in 1999 before shifting gears.
Still, he needed to keep baseball in his life.
"It's essential," Rakers said.
It always has been. His 85-year-old father, Jim, is a Clinton County legend as a player and coach who introduced all seven of his children to the game in some form.
"There's not a day of his life he's not wrapped around baseball," Rakers said. "I got my love of baseball from him. It's in my blood."
He found a way to keep that passion pumping with an endeavor that has turned into more than a hobby.
"It keeps me around it and I love it," Rakers said.