I’m not sure what it is about Iowa, but I seem to be inspired whenever I visit this great state. After visiting the Field of Dreams in Dyersville, Iowa back in 1991, an idea struck me out of the blue. It was a simple adjustment that is now the basis for the hitting mechanics I have taught to baseball and softball players for the past 25 years. More recently, I participated twice in RAGBRAI, the annual bike trip across Iowa. On my treks from the Missouri River to the Mississippi River, I met dozens of people from around the country who inspired and encouraged me to press on when my legs were telling me to quit. This past Memorial Day weekend, another idea came to me. I had a “BUILD IT AND THEY WILL COME” revelation, prompting me to build a batting cage in a barn at my wife’s family farm in Washington, Iowa.
I had never thought seriously about building a batting cage at the farm before this past weekend. However, early Friday morning, the idea hit me like a 100 mph fastball to the head. I didn’t question where the idea came from or whether a batting cage at the farm was even feasible. Without hesitation, my first task was to figure out how to find netting for a batting cage on such short notice. I immediately fired off an email to Ron Cacini, the owner of The Ballpark in Mt. Prospect http://theballparkmp.com/, who has built several batting cages. Ron responded with the name of the company that installed the cages in his top-notch baseball and softball instructional facility. Ron never questioned my idea, because like me, he loves baseball and believes in the seemingly supernatural affect the Game can have on people.
Ron referred me to Keith Burke, the Director of Sales for On Deck Sports http://www.ondecksports.com/ in Brockton, MA. After only a few brief emails, I found myself placing an order for a 70 foot net that would need to be delivered Saturday to rural Iowa. When Keith guaranteed the netting would be there, I began to get the feeling that something special might be happening.
When I arrived at the farm late Friday night, my brother-in-law (Dave Tweeten) and I walked through all of the farm buildings by only the light of my iPhone, in search of the perfect location for the batting cage. We eventually agreed the best location would be a semi-enclosed area on the south side of the barn. The dimensions were not ideal for the size of the netting that would be delivered the following day, but I was determined to make it work.
At the break of dawn on Saturday, Dave’s 8-year old son (Will) and I began to clean this area that was filled with old furniture, wood pallets, scraps of lumber, ancient hay, and a broad collection of droppings from stray animals who have called the barn their home for many years. We hauled and cleaned for several hours, until the debris was gone and the floor was clean. I offered young Will no compensation for his hard work, yet he finished the job without a complaint. Instead of helping his Uncle Paul with this dirty project, Will could have been running around the farm or swinging in the hammock. This was the first time Will and I had ever spent this much time alone together….two guys laughing and playfully yelling at each other. Was this one of the reasons I was prompted to build the batting cage?
After clearing and cleaning the area for the new batting cage, I went to pick up the netting that was being delivered to a neighboring farm owned by my wife’s cousin, Marc Knupp of Knupp Farms. Sure enough, a big, heavy box was waiting for me. I was perplexed when I noticed the lid on the box was open and there was no shipping label. At that moment, I was just happy the net was there, so I didn’t dwell on how the box was actually delivered. Common sense tells me that the box was accidentally opened during shipping and new technologies don’t require shipping labels anymore. However, perhaps it’s like the little boy on Christmas morning who thinks he knows how that new bicycle made it into the family room, but he also has a sliver of doubt and hope that perhaps some magic was involved. That’s how I felt as I watched the kids play in that empty box throughout the weekend.
My next task was to buy the remaining materials for the batting cage, which included strong cables, hooks, and turnbuckles to keep the cables as tight as possible. I drove into the town of Washington and visited the local Orscheln Farm Store. As I stared at the spool of cable I needed, it didn’t look like there would be enough for the three runs I would need to hang the netting. I asked a store employee for his educated guess, but it was impossible for him to determine the exact length remaining on the spool. Without any more cable in stock, and no other source for cable still open in this small town, I had no other choice but to have faith that whatever was on this spool would be enough. When I returned to the farm and nervously measured the cable on the spool, I was relieved that I had the lengths I needed, with only two short feet to spare. Was this another sign?
With a clean area and all the materials in hand, it was time to build. Like Ray Kinsella in the movie Field of Dreams, my idea was met with some skepticism, but I knew in my heart this batting cage had to be built. I am not an overly handy person when it comes to construction, so even I was uncertain whether I could transform this section of the barn into a first-class batting cage.
Having completed many smaller projects in the old farm buildings over the years, I was braced for some surprises and setbacks. As anyone who has every owned an old home can tell you, rotting wood, crazy angles, and the wrong tools, can make even the smallest jobs frustrating and costly. Not this project. All my measurements were right on the money, every anchor was solid, and I had just the right tool for every task. After stringing and tightening the cables with Dave, it was finally time to hang the netting. As I attached each clip to the taut cable, the batting cage slowly came to life. All I could do was shake my head as the tunnel grew longer and longer until my barn of dreams became a reality.
My daughter, Elaine, was the obvious choice to take the first swings in the batting cage. She played softball through high school and she also loves the Game. As my first child, Elaine would often serve as my subject when I wanted to test new hitting mechanics, including The Torque Hitting Technique http://torque-hitting.com/2014/12/26/a-holiday-hitting-surprise-the-torque-returns/. As she stepped in the cage and set up to hit, we were both filled with a sense of excitement and satisfaction. I placed the first ball on the tee and she promptly hit a line drive the length of the tunnel. The sound of the ball hitting her bat never sounded so sweet to me. The batting cage was finished!
For most of the movie, Ray Kinsella didn’t know exactly why he was called to build his baseball field in the middle of a cornfield. After he completed the field, ball players from the past came out of the tall corn stalks to once again play the game they loved. As the games were being played, Ray also had a sense of excitement and satisfaction, but the real reason for his field had yet to be revealed to him.
Why was I suddenly called to build this batting cage in the back of a barn in Washington, Iowa on Memorial Day Weekend? I didn’t hear any voices, but I absolutely received clear messages with instructions over the weekend that I was compelled to follow. After the batting cage was completed, the whole family had fun hitting and pitching in it the rest of the weekend. It was gratifying for me to see everyone in the family, including my wife take some swings in the new batting cage in back of the barn. For me, this was enough reward and justification for the time and expense it took to build something that will probably only be used a handful of times each year.
On Memorial Day, I entered my new hallowed ground and began retracting the netting before we left for home in Illinois, My emotions included pride and gratitude, but I had the nagging feeling that the real reason this batting cage needed to be built is yet to be revealed.
“BUILD IT AND THEY WILL COME”
“EASE HIS PAIN”
“GO THE DISTANCE”