Better Batting Cages
The Chicago Bulls/White Sox Training Academy in Lisle, Ill.
By Elisa Kronish
When you were growing up, baseball practice probably meant you and your friends, a couple of bats, worn-in mitts, beat-up balls and the nearest dusty field. And that was good enough—great, even. But kids these daysÖ
Kids these days want their experience to be as close to Major League as they can get. After all, the excitement over peanuts and Cracker Jack waned when pizza and nachos invaded concessions, so itís no surprise that kids expect savvier options for their practice and training too. Kids today like high tech, high speed and virtual reality. At the Chicago Bulls/White Sox Training Academy in Lisle, Ill., their faux field of dreams comes true with the ProBatter pitching system.
Combining advanced computer and video technology, the system features a real-life image of a pitcher who fires balls right through a 9-foot-by-12-foot projection screen. It can send out any pitch—fastball, sinker, cutter, splitter, curve, change-up or slider—at speeds from 40 mph to 100 mph, in increments of 2 mph. And images can be of anyone, lefty or righty, 6-foot-4 Major Leaguer or 4-foot-6 Little Leaguer. A computerized card is programmed with the hittersí age group to determine appropriate pitches.
The Chicago Bulls/White Sox Training Academy, which opened summer 2001, is so far one of just a handful of facilities that owns a ProBatter pitching simulator.
"We saw them demoed at an Amateur Baseball Coaches Association convention and thought it was a unique way to train our students," says Mike Moyzis, general manager for baseball at the instructional facility located 30 miles from downtown Chicago. White Sox players such as first baseman/designated hitter Frank Thomas put their stamp of approval on it.
"And that was the beginning," Moyzis says. So if the pros can have one—White Sox players now warm up at a ProBatter cage behind their dugout at Comiskey Park in Chicago—then why not the future pros?
Fortunately, as part of the White Sox and Bulls professional teams, the training academy could afford the systemís $100,000 price tag. For facilities not-so-fortunate, leasing is now available from the systemís developer and manufacturer, ProBatter Sports, LLC, based in Norwalk, Conn.
Through many months of Chicagoís un-baseball-like weather, indoor training is key to performing well on the field come game time. The 57,000-square-foot Chicago Bulls/White Sox Training Academy is fully enclosed for year-round practice. It houses 11 traditional batting cages, two dirt pitchers mounds, and the ProBatter and new fast-pitch softball ProBatter system.
Although members of the White Sox—such as trainer Herm Schneider, starting third baseman Jose Valentin and General Manager Kevin Williams—have been seen around the academy, Chicago-area minor-league players typically use the facility during the days. After school until 10 p.m. and during the summer, itís filled with school-age kids.
"The really neat part about the facility I see is the parental bonding; itís really neat to see families get quality time with their kids," Moyzis says. "Weíre probably going to do a father-son and father-daughter day," he says. High-school and college student athletes and menís recreational baseball leagues also come in for training.
And everyone wants a turn on the pitching system, which immediately attracts attention when people walk into the academy.
"Kids are really excited when they see we have the latest and greatest," says Yvette Healy, marketing director and coach at the academy. Parents are more incredulous. "Itís a different look for the traditionalist," Healy says. "So thereís some resistance from parents who arenít quite ready for the video age." On the other hand, Healy says, many parents are happy to trade in the time their kids spend at home playing video games for time at the academy playing video baseball.
For coaches, the system is their newest tool to help players prepare for games.
"Our philosophy is to give the kids the best opportunity to be the best they can be," Moyzis says. Most of the instruction is a leadup to getting time with the batting system.
"We want them to have the fundamentals down first," he says. "In conjunction with individual training for students, this is as lifelike as they can get to one-to-one confrontation with a pitcher." The academyís system came with a Minor League pitcher image, though Moyzis says it will soon have shots of White Sox pitchers. At $50 per hour, itís not much more expensive than the academyís regular batting cage ($35).
The fast-pitch softball version of the ProBatter is in testing phase, and girls who train at the academy are gladly helping out.
"They love it," says Lynn OíLinski, director of operations for fast-pitch. "Traditionally, the pitching machines donít throw different pitches," she says, explaining that the ProBatter helps players learn how to keep their balance through a variety of pitches. "I could see a pitch thatís 50 mph and then one at 70 mph," OíLinski says.
"One of the reasons they love this is because being in Chicago, we donít have the luxury of getting out on the field," she says. A college team that needs to prepare for a game in a warmer climate now has the luxury of getting as close to on-the-field as possible. "We do a lot of drill work, and then you put them in the ProBatter, and it helps get them in the mind-set for live play."
While the Chicago White Sox/Bulls Training Academy makes it clear that it canít promise a college scholarship or professional contract, its sophisticated training systems give kids a strong leg up.
For more information
ProBatter Sports: 203-874-2500