The Futility Infielder

A Baseball Journal by Jay Jaffe I'm a baseball fan living in New York City. In between long tirades about the New York Yankees and the national pastime in general, I'm a graphic designer.

Thursday, July 26, 2001

 

Support Your Local Batting Cages

I'm back from Milwaukee, where I enjoyed a wonderful weekend OD'ing on baseball, pork products, humidity, and the hospitality of the Hardt family, my hosts. Aside from my visit to Miller Park (which I'll report on soon), the highlight of my trip came on Sunday afternoon, when I paid a visit to the batting cages at Hegan's Field of Dreams, only a few blocks from the Hardt house. Mike Hegan, the proprietor, is a former major-leaguer who played most of his career in Milwaukee; the arcade-style Field of Dreams included an exhibit of his Brewers and A's uniforms (he was a member of the 1972 World Champions), and a blowup of his Seattle Pilots baseball card, as well as several batting cages.

I don't recall the details of the last time I stepped into a batting cage, but I do remember feeling somewhat humiliated. Several foul tips, some stingers off the hands, and very few solid whacks. That was around ten years ago, and since then, my only swings have come with a whiffle-ball bat playing Home Run Derby in a Northampton back yard. So I was somewhat nervous about not only taking a trip to Hegan's, but doing so in the company of my girlfriend Andra, her older brother Aaron, and her parents, Aaron Sr. and Aune (pronounced "aw-nee"). They've championed this web site since its inception, but there's a reason I call it The Futility Infielder--I was never exactly a wiz with the bat.

As it was, I had a blast in what turned into quite the family outing. All of us, including the ladies, took our turns in the cage (Andra had played softball in her youth, with Aune as her coach; they won three straight Rainbow Softball League titles in Milwaukee). Each round of 14 balls cost $1.25, and each ball--a durable dimpled plastic, like an oversize golf ball--was fired from a distance of about 40 feet. We started on slow-pitch softballs, mashing them around to build our confidence. Our success on the slow baseballs (40 MPH, according to an employee) steeled us to try a round on the medium pitch (50 MPH), with slightly less respectable results.

I felt quite a rush each time I stepped into the batter's box. Settling into a compact crouch stance (think Chuck Knoblauch) I found myself doing my Stargell windmill, just like in Little League, only faster, in time with the rhythm of the machines. Combined with the sweltering heat (it had to be almost 90 degrees in time), I soon found myself drenched with sweat. But I didn't mind, as I connected with pitch after pitch, whiffing only occasionally, lashing some very satisfactory liners into the nettings of the cages, and hamming it up by menacingly pointing my bat at the pitching machine when it issued the obligatory brush-back pitches (two per round, letter-high and inside).

After we'd finished the medium pitch round, Aune admitted that she wanted to try the very fast machine (80 MPH). Ever the inquiring mind (not to mention quite the trooper), she explained, "I want to gain an appreciation for how fast that ball is going and how hard it is to hit when I see the games." So she, Aaron, and I shuttled in and out of the fast-pitch cage like kamikaze pinch-hitters. Facing four pitches apiece, none of us managed so much as a foul tip. Each time, the ball hit the net's protective padding with a loud "thwack" that reminded me of an unsuspecting bug splattering on the windshield of a speeding car. The close distance, poor lighting, and lack of visual cues had something to do with it--at that speed and distance, you practically need to start your swing before you actually see the ball. Not exactly a recipe for success, but a good reminder of the distance between a weekend warrior and a major league hitter.

I took one more turn on the slow baseball machine after my four-pitch ordeal, satisfied that I'd at least found some level at which I felt competent at swinging the bat. I don't expect my agent will get any phone calls from clubs seeking an extra right-handed bat for the stretch run (no, Chuck LaMar, I don't know the way to Tampa Bay), but I'm glad I got at least a small taste of just how difficult it is to hit a baseball again. At roughly $5 per hour per person, it's cheap entertainment, a moderate amount of exercise, a serious jolt of adrenaline, and a hell of a good time.

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