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Guest Column - January/February 2003

Batter Up

What are the options when it comes to places to practice swings

By Jim Myrland


PHOTOS COURTESY OF BEACON BALLFIELDS   
Outdoors or indoors, permanent or portable, there are many options when it comes to batting cages.

Batting cages are becoming an essential practice tool used to train baseball and softball hitters from the youth leagues to the majors. Intensive hitting practice can be done safely in a controlled indoor or outdoor space allowing each player to get many more swings than he or she would get on an open field.

The components of any batting cage system include the net and some kind of frame or cable support structure designed to hold the net in its proper position and shape. There are many varieties of net material available, but most cage nets are made from nylon or polyethylene fibers knitted or knotted to form 1-3/4-inch square mesh netting. The number of fibers used determines the net's weight and burst strength while the method of assembly and the quality of the ultra-violet treatment the fibers received determine the durability of the finished cage.

Outdoor batting cage nets and frames must be designed to survive the elements. Intense sun, frequent rain and strong winds can breakdown the net material, tear net seams apart and bend frame members. Sun is the primary enemy of any polymer-based material. Net fibers should be UV treated before they are spun into the yarns that are used to form the cage. A "dipped" net is one that is not fiber coated but is fully assembled and then submerged in the UV treatment. This method is hit-or-miss, and any yarns under stress, such as the knots if the net is knotted, will not absorb the chemicals and will be the first areas to begin to fail.

If steel frames are used to support a cage net (the most common arrangement for outdoor units), they should be made from heavy-duty galvanized steel pipe (schedule 40, 2-1/2-inch OD minimum). There should be enough frames, spaced near enough to one another, to assure adequate support of the cage top panel because a sagging roof panel can limit inside space and interfere with the ball if a tall pitcher is throwing from an elevated mound. The frames should be shaped so that the cables that they support locate the net at least one foot inside the frame members. This allows the net to move when hit by a ball so it can absorb energy before the ball pushes the net against any structural member. If there is too little absorption space, the ball can ricochet back toward the hitter or pitcher. The pinching of the net between a ball and the post will also break yarns and start forming holes in the net.

PHOTOS COURTESY OF BEACON BALLFIELDS   

Security for outdoor cages can be an issue, and a common solution is a chain-link enclosure built around the cage that has a lockable door. If planned prior to the installation of the cage, the chain-link pole structure can be used to support a cable system that suspends the net well within the enclosure walls. This can eliminate the separate frame set and lower the cost of a lockable facility.

Many schools, recreation facilities and commercial sports training operations are adding batting cages to support off-season training and hitting practice. If the cage can be left in position for the entire season, an outdoor-type frame and net can be used. Steel frames can be anchored to the floor or set into ground inserts or guy lines can be used running from the floor or wall. However, if the facility is multiuse and the cage must be moved or taken down, often a different system is necessary.

One option is the ceiling suspended frame with cables, pulleys and a wench for lowering the cage to the playing surface or raising it to a storage position. These systems are expensive, and since buildings and ceilings differ, they require custom engineering and professional installation. Ceiling units can't be put in an air-supported facility, and the ceiling area in many gymnasiums is already cluttered with divider curtain runs and basketball goal supports.

PHOTOS COURTESY OF BEACON BALLFIELDS   

Freestanding frames are a second option. They do not require any floor anchors or attachment to the ceiling or walls. They are generally sized for standard baseball or softball cage nets and are assembled in place on the playing floor. Some of these systems can be disconnected, and the frame pieces can be nested so that a full 70-foot-long baseball cage can be condensed to about 8 feet for storage. Be sure to consider the process required to open or close such a cage and the number of people required. Not all "collapsible" cages are easy to work with, and some are so cumbersome they shouldn't be considered when frequent transitions are necessary.

A third indoor system is the cross-cable suspended net. Traditionally, steel cables were run across the room, and the cage net was hung from the cables using metal clips. The net could be pulled across the cables like a shower curtain on a rod—pulled open for use and gathered back along a wall for storage. While simple and inexpensive, permanent steel cables running about 12 feet to 14 feet off the ground across the gym floor can interfere with basketball and volleyball, making this system a less-than-ideal choice for many facilities.

Another option is a cross-floor suspension cage that has flexible fiber cables permanently attached to the net top panel. One set of cable ends are connected to eyebolts installed on one wall, and the other ends of the cables are hooked to 2:1 block and tackle tensioners that are hooked to eyebolts in the opposite wall. The cables are tensioned raising the cage into place. The advantage is that when tension is released and the cables disconnected from the eyebolts, the entire cage/cable assembly can be rolled up and stored off-site in a storage bin or laundry hamper. They only things remaining in the room are the six eyebolts in the walls and the three pulley tensioners that hang along the wall from one set of eyebolts.

Batting cages provide a safe and compact place to practice baseball or softball hitting skills. Whether indoor or outdoor, a batting cage that is well designed and made from durable, heavy-duty materials will provide a long-lasting, safe and cost-effective place for hitters to train.

Jim Myrland is responsible for design and product development for Beacon Ballfields, a division of Rainbow Group, LLC. He can be reached at jmyrland@ballfields.com.