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The Batter's Always Up at Buddy's

April 05, 1999|DANNY FEINGOLD

Setting down his skateboard, 13-year-old Dominic Towell enters the metal cage and steps up to the plate. Sixty feet away, a mechanical arm flings pitches at him, and he connects on every one with a swing he hopes may get him to the majors one day.

It's a sunny spring afternoon, the balls are flying, and all is well in the somewhat tattered but resilient sanctuary known as Buddy's Bat-a-Way in Van Nuys. As close to a historical landmark as the mid-Valley can claim, Buddy's has stood as a mecca for several generations of baseball lovers, who today mark the beginning of another season. The place is anachronistically modest--five batting cages, some benches and tables, a small office with memorabilia, video games and a refreshment stand--and definitely in need of a face lift. But oh does it draw the faithful.

"This is one of the only things in the Valley that's still the same," says Angel Santana, as he watches his son Jonathan fend off 85 mph pitches in the Sandy Koufax cage. Santana came to Buddy's when he was growing up, and he now returns with his kid. "To this day, I like this place because of the arm. The newer batting cages just have the hole. Here, you can time it like a pitcher."

This is a point of pride for owner Buddy Blatt, who with his wife, Lee, opened L.A.'s first batting cage 39 years ago in Studio City (they moved to their present Van Nuys location in 1967). The couple built the machines themselves, using a design by Lee's father, who, according to Blatt, actually invented the rotary-arm pitching machine and later opened up batting ranges on the East Coast. Lee Blatt even hand-stitches the netting that encloses the cages. Asked how many balls have come flying from those metal appendages, Blatt laughs. "More than McDonald's hamburgers probably."

Back in the '70s, Buddy's was the batting cage of choice for such Dodger stalwarts as Dusty Baker, Lee Lacy and Reggie Smith, who came to work on their hitting but would also take time to coach the kids. Blatt's face lights up as he and his attorney son, Marc, who virtually grew up at the cages, reminisce about Baker and Lacy, whose autographed posters hang inside the office next to a mini-gallery of Babe Ruth photos.

"With some people it doesn't matter how much money they make--they don't change," says Blatt in the New Jersey accent of his youth.

With the frozen-in-time price of 25 cents for seven balls--displayed on a dirty white sign in handwritten red letters--Blatt and his wife don't exactly clean up on Buddy's. That's not the point, says Blatt. "It started out as a business venture, but it turned into my life."

Still, Blatt's not sure how long he can keep Buddy's going. If he closes, it will be a sad day for regulars like Joe Kite, who's been coming here for 30 years--the last 11 with his teenage daughter, Kim, who climbs into the cage in her black skirt and tennies to take some cuts.

A few minutes later, the Santanas, who make the pilgrimage to Buddy's three times a week, return for their second round of the day. "I hope it never goes," says Angel, who then turns to watch his son lay bat to ball in Buddy's sacred rite of spring.

Buddy's Bat-a-Way, 14485 Raymer St., Van Nuys. (818) 786-1600.

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