Batters get feel for real thing 

February 17, 2005 

BY KRISTA LATHAM
FREE PRESS COLUMNIST

I have felt the fear. 

Last week, I stood at home plate and stared down a professional baseball pitcher who was about to whip a ball at 85 miles per hour past my unprotected head. I didn't have a helmet on, but truthfully, what I really wanted was full-body padding.

And just like most first-timers, when he finally sent the ball whizzing my way, I balked and jumped out of the batter's box, stepping a foot back into my comfort zone. 

The fear can do that to you. 

But here's the embarrassing thing -- the "professional pitcher" was actually a video image displayed on a screen. And while the video showed this pitcher standing on the mound at Shea Stadium in New York, I stood, quite safely, in a cage at the Macomb Batting Cages.

This is the world of the ProBatter, a high-tech version of the typical batting cage experience that promises users a more life-like experience complete with stress, fear and second-guessing.

Here's how it works: A pitching machine sits behind a mini movie screen at the end of a cage. You stand at home plate. As you grip your bat, the pitcher on the video screen starts to wind up. Just as he gets to the top of his rotation, his hand aligns with a hole in the screen that's more than six-feet off the ground. 

And suddenly, a ball shoots out of the hole. So just like in a game, batters can see the windup and must anticipate the release time, not to mention conquer the irrational fear that this two-dimensional person might be an erratic thrower.

"That's what makes this work," said Joe Loria, owner of Macomb Batting Cages on Groesbeck in Roseville. "When kids step into a batter's box in a game, that's the first thing that goes through their head. It brings in that realistic element of fear to the experience."

The 6-foot high release point is also important. A pitching machine traditionally shoots out balls from about chest-high, but that's not how real pitchers throw.

"This is like a midget pitching to you," Loria said as he fed balls into a standard machine. "It's not what you see when you face a real pitcher. These balls come in pretty flat, where realistically, a ball comes down on an angle."

The machine can adjust to throw pitches from 40 to 90 m.p.h. Loria can also make the ball move up or down in the strike zone.

Loria, who is an assistant baseball coach at Warren De La Salle, said the machine has been up and running since January, and slowly, baseball enthusiasts have come around to try it. The place caters to students with special after-school prices that begin at 3:15 p.m. each weekday. Cages also can be reserved for an hour by teams or individuals who want extra practice 

Warren Zoe Christian baseball coach Rich Mallino brings a few of his varsity players out to the cage each week and said he likes it for its real-life simulation.

"Hitting is timing and mechanics," he said. "And you can't work on timing with a standard pitching machine. But with the ProBatter, when you can see the pitcher load up, you can time when to take your stride and swing. That's the biggest thing it can provide."

Well, that, and a good dose of humble pie. After I stepped back into the batter's box to face my virtual opponent, I discovered conquering the fear is just the first step. In my 12-pitch session - a $2.50 value -- I connected with two pitches, and let's just say neither one was quite home run material.