With the boys of summer in full swing, thoughts of baseball -- and the joy of swinging the bat and hearing that satisfying crack or ping -- are with many of us. But as one gets older, rounding up enough people for a pickup game is difficult.
One way to stay in touch with the game as an active participant is to visit one of the dozens of batting cages around Southern California. You get the fun and immediacy of the game, and can work up a pretty good sweat too.
It's always amused me that people think baseball is boring. Maybe if you have little knowledge of the game, watching it can be. But try stepping into a batting cage where the pitches are whistling at 80 miles an hour and see if life doesn't get instantly more exciting.
Many sports experts say that hitting a baseball, especially one thrown at 95 mph or faster, as by baseball's best pitchers, is one of the most difficult skills in all sports. Hitting a fastball is an amazing symphony of muscle memory, hand-eye coordination and intense concentration, where the moment of contact between ball and bat lasts about 1/1,000 of a second.
In the batting cage, you needn't worry about the unpredictability of curves, sliders and change-ups. The balls in batting cages generally travel at the same adjustable speed and over the same portion of the plate. Easy, you say?
Not exactly. Connecting with a ball -- even a somewhat spongy, dimpled and yellow one -- hurled by a mindless pitching machine isn't a picnic. It had been years since I'd been in the cages, and with my ever-declining reflexes, I wasn't sure how I would do. I decided to bat for about a half-hour to get my heart rate up, dividing my time in three different cages to give myself short breaks.
My plan was to start out in the 70-mph cage and, depending how that worked, move up to the 80 mph or down to the 60 mph, then finish with some slow-pitch softball. In all, I would be swinging the aluminum bat (weight: a little more than 2 pounds) 270 times -- a motion that gave me sore ribs and arms the following day.
I chose Sherman Oaks Castle Park in the San Fernando Valley, where the baseball cages range in pitching speed from 40 mph to 80 mph. Prices vary from facility to facility, but the Sherman Oaks cages charge $2.50 for 30 pitches. You can also rent blocks of time (30 minutes, $21; 60 minutes, $39).
After getting a 34-inch bat and a helmet, I pumped my first token into the 70-mph machine. It was a midmorning on a weekday and I was the only hitter in the cages. As I waited for the first pitch I felt tense, and my muscles tightened.
Then, I saw the yellow ball dropping down the chute -- and zoom! I swung but was way behind the pitch. A 70-mph pitch was faster than I remembered. But I stepped back a bit in the box and, with a better idea of what to expect, made contact on the next pitch. A grounder to short.
It wasn't until the second round of pitches that I began to gain some rhythm. I was hitting a mix of line drives, grounders to short and what would be fly balls to left and center field.
Every once in a while, I'd completely whiff -- something that apart from its effect on my pride also physically stings. All your focus and energy is channeled into striking the ball, so when you miss, the body is thrown momentarily off-kilter.
Still, the hitting was going fine, and I felt ready to try the 80-mph cage. After a couple of pitches, I was slapping the ball around fairly well. And every half-dozen pitches or so, I'd tag one -- a feeling I can liken to hitting a long, straight drive off the tee (an extremely rare event in my case).
After I dropped my second token into the 80-mph cage -- roughly 130 pitches -- I began to tire. The process of preparation, swinging and recovery was taking its toll. I started to dribble balls toward first base, hit little pop-ups or miss completely. Also, my ability to concentrate on each pitch was beginning to flag as well.
Around this time, I noticed I had developed a dime-sized blister on my left hand. I worked around it the rest of the time, but if you're new to the cages or you're planning on extended batting practice, I'd recommend wearing a batting glove.
At the end of 90 pitches in the 80-mph cage, I was glad to switch to slow-pitch softball. After grossly overswinging on the first arcing softball pitch, I decided to switch-hit for my final rounds. I moved to the left side of the plate, relaxed, and started banging the ball. On the left side of the plate, I lacked power, but I hit line drives and screaming grounders fairly consistently.
I was never out of breath, but the activity raised my heart level and brought on a satisfying sweat.
The cages are a great way to re-experience the joys of the baseball diamond at your own convenience. And despite what you might think looking at some of the chubbier hitters in the major leagues, it's also a decent and rewarding workout.
Martin Miller can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.