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Build it and they will ‘swing’ by

By Bill Vossler

Mike Willenbring with his pitching machine. Mike has been “pitching” at his battle cage, helping his kids, his grandkids and neighborhood kids with their hitting since 1995. Photo by Bill Vossler

When Mike Willenbring was a youngster needing to work on the farm, he could only choose one sport to play in school.

“Because I was tall, that sport was basketball,” the 62-year old rural Rockville man said. “So after I got married, my wife Annie and I decided we wouldn’t hold our children back from any sports they wanted to participate in if they were willing to put the effort into it.”

One of those sports proved to be baseball, so when their sons Chris, Chad and Scott began to play, Mike started coaching Rockville Little League. It was there where he made an interesting discovery -- their greatest fear in baseball and the biggest fear of other members of the squads in playing the sport was the fear of getting hit by a pitch.

“I could help them out by pitching to them, but I wasn’t always 100 percent accurate either, and there wasn’t always enough time to get each of the boys on the teams enough swings to get used to seeing the ball.”

So he decided to buy a pitching machine. No small investment, $3,000 in 1995, when Chris was 10. But the JUGS machine (named after a so-called “Jug-handle curve” early ones threw) proved to be a great investment.

“I figured my boys could spend more time hitting, getting used to seeing pitches, and overcoming their fear of getting hit by a pitch.“

It also became a staple for the rest of the players on the teams his sons played on.

“We started using it for batting practice and I believe it helped their hitting.” The Rockville teams of the time were very competitive, he said.

Mike Willenbring shows the ball to the batter before dropping it into the machine. Photo by Bill Vossler

Getting It Right

The pitching machine can be set to throw fast balls up to 100 miles per hour, as well as curves, sliders, screwballs and knuckleballs. At first Mike and his sons and their teammates took swings out in the open without a cage.

“But every time we used it we had to spend a half hour looking for balls, which was time spent not batting, and risking running into poison ivy in the ditches.”

So Mike decided to make a complete batting cage, using a photo of one as a guide, adding cables, netting and legs to hold it all down. Which worked great. No more running and searching for lost balls.

Except when the speed of the ball was blistered up to 80-90 mph.

“Then they would fly through the net behind the batter, and we had to go after them, so I had to make a backstop.”

The pitching machine is 60 feet away from the plate, close to the major league distance, and the whole setup was a hit with the kids. Members of the Rockville teams came over regularly to take some swings,

“The kids loved it. Depending on which team they might be playing next, we could crank it to go faster, and they could learn to choke up to try to hit the faster pitching. This way each player could get 20, 30, 40 pitches thrown to them with the machine, and almost every pitch was a strike. Kids got to figure out what the strike zone was. And they gained confidence.”

That was a huge factor, Mike said. They learn how to keep their weight on the back foot, “squishing the bug,” as it is called, and pivoting their hips.

“They learn fast how to get their timing down, keep their eye on the ball, shorten their stroke, and make contact. Knowing that they could hit the ball gave them self-confidence.”

And each year the hitters were a year older, and Mike and other coaches could see the improvement because of the pitching machine. “In regular batting practice you’d see a lot of swings and misses, because of the inconsistency in the pitches and fear of getting hit. But with the pitching machine the kids and their teammates sure liked it when they could get in and take some swings, hit the balls regularly, and add to their confidence. I see that with my grandkids. They come over and swing the bat, and it’s fun watching them develop. It brings back memories of my three boys, and its fun to see the grandkids get into it.”

His grandson Drew, now 13, calls two or three times a week to ask for batting practice. “If I have something going on, we don’t do it. But if not, he comes over and hits. He has gotten a good deal stronger since last year, and that makes a difference in the power of the hitting.”

Drew Willenbring agreed. “It helps me get better for my season playing baseball, and because every year I get nervous about getting beaned by the ball, it has improved my skill of staying with the ball.”

Drew Willenbring, Mike’s 13-year-old grandson, is ready to do some hitting. Photo by Bill Vossler

He says it has helped his hand-eye coordination as well; a major part of batting.

“I can focus on the ball much better, so I’ve improved on how I can hit the ball harder and farther.”

The most difficult part? “When my grandpa sometimes pulls one on me by throwing a faster pitch,” he laughed.

Mike remembered seeing his own kids, and other teammates, get their first hit in a game, and seeing the confidence soar. “They were happy as heck.”

What’s It Like

Mike and other coaches noted that their players had difficulty hitting the curve ball from the machine. “We were wondering, ‘Why can’t they hit these balls?’ So as coaches we decided to try batting against the curve ball from the batting machine, and none of us could hit them. Five of us all tried to hit the curve, and found it was a real challenge.”

It gave them all a real appreciation for how some major league players had little trouble hitting the ball. “They must see so many that when the pitcher releases it, they might see it as a curve ball.”

Mike said that his sons all ended up being pretty good hitters, and gives at least some credit to the batting cage. “They knew they couldn’t play professional ball, but they had fun in high school and enjoyed the sport.” Two of his sons did play college ball.

Mike says Annie also used the batting cage when she was playing softball. “Because you can adjust the machine for different speeds, I could set it to work for her.

“Additionally, the machine can be set to create topspin for practicing fielding ground balls, and reverse spin for practicing catching fly balls. A lot of different things that you can have the machine play with.”

Besides learning more about hitting baseballs, one of the great advantages of the batting cage was the relationships it developed. “Even now my kids will come home and go out and swing, just to prove that they can still hit the ball. The oldest boys and grandsons get in and hit. It’s an easy way to get the whole family involved. Just get in the cage and adjust accordingly.”

Recently, a 74-year-old man driving bicycle past Willenbring’s batting cage was offered the chance to hit, and discovered how much fun it was, and yet how difficult.

Drew Willenbring lines the ball during a session in the batting cage. Photo by Bill Vossler

Offers for the Machine

Mike said he could have sold his batting cage setup many times. “I don’t know how many people have asked me if I wanted to sell it. But I told them I was keeping it for the grandkids, one is 13 and the other, 7.”

Mike said if kids are interested, adults could figure out how to get a batting cage set up for them. “Yes, it cost a lot of money, but the kids grow up so fast, and a person can usually make some sacrifices someplace so they can get a machine like that. It really helps the kids out. It’s a good tool for the kids to get outside and exercise rather than doing Play Station and sitting inside. We did it for the kids. At the high school level there are only so many hours they can play and practice, and with this machine they can get a lot more cuts in. You can see what they need to work on, and help them with that, and see the relationships develop among the kids and parents.”

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