Chris Richard
  • Chris Richard
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Every park I see these days is swarming with kids throwing baseballs. My ten-year-old is pushing hard to join a team. But while he’s had years of catch with his dad, he hasn’t done much hitting. I thought maybe a pitching machine could help.

“All ages benefit from pitching machines, even old guys out there warming up for their Sunday softball game,” said Bob Richard, owner of Sports Products Consultants in Mira Mesa (800-474-8243; personalpitcher.com). “But mostly we sell to the youth market. The fear of striking out is acute in young baseball players. You’ve got pressure, from the game and from the parents.”

Richard spoke from experience. “My son Chris played for San Diego City College and Mesa College, then the minor leagues, and eventually in the pros. When he was 14 — this was in 1988 — I searched the market for an affordable pitching machine. I ended up making one in the garage out of cast-off...cabinetry, DC motors, and wheels I got from a hobby shop on Convoy. By 1994, the Personal Pitcher had become my sole source of income. I’ve sold them to high schools, colleges, and even some Major Leaguers.”

The basic mechanics of the Personal Pitcher: “It uses two counter-rotating wheels powered by either a six-volt rechargeable battery or an AC adapter. A third motor feeds the balls automatically at either five- or eight-second intervals. The speed can be set from soft-toss to 60 miles per hour. When you’re standing 25 feet from the machine, that’s the equivalent of getting a 100 mph pitch from 60 feet away. It’s light — five pounds — and portable. It sits on a standard tripod [$28 from Sports Products Consultants].”

The machine uses standard practice golf balls. “They’re inexpensive and long lasting. They’re designed to react to slices and hooks, and so the pro-model Personal Pitcher can use them to throw curve balls as well as straight pitches.”

The standard straight-pitch model, which includes two-dozen balls and a one-year warranty, runs $99; the variable-pitch pro model, which includes four-dozen balls and a two-year warranty and is intended for ages ten and up, runs $125. (Customers can enter the promo code READER on the website and receive a $10 discount, and they can buy in-store to avoid a shipping charge.)

Swinging at a smaller ball improves hand-eye coordination, said Richard. “The mechanics of hitting the ball with the bat don’t change. And using a pitching machine improves timing, muscle memory, and bat speed. Bat speed, together with the point on the ball where the bat comes in contact, dictates the ‘power’ in a swing more than muscle.”

The practice allows a player to “isolate problem pitches that a live pitcher might throw. The batter can work on the mechanics, including bat angle and point of contact. That way, the batter is prepared to react to anything from knuckleballs to sliders to the high, hard stuff.”

Has anyone been hurt? “We’ve never had a serious injury reported to us that was directly attributed to the machine. It’s not like the danger inherent in a pitching machine that’s throwing real baseballs.”

Even so, I did check on full-size pitching machines. The gal at Dick’s Sporting Goods in El Cajon (619-447-0191; dickssportinggoods.com) said her most expensive machine was the Jugs PS-50 for $500. “It throws real baseballs and softballs or practice balls up to 50 mph. Then we have the Fence Buster at $299, which throws soft baseballs or softballs up to 45 mph. On the lower end, we carry the Pitch to Hit at $150. That uses only practice balls [$19.99 for a six-pack], but it has an automatic feed. The others must be hand fed, one ball at a time.”

At Sport Chalet in Mission Valley (619-718-7070; sportchalet.com), Brandon told me “the Atec Power Streak goes for $499. It throws dimple balls [12 for $45] at 30 to 60 mph. There’s no automatic feed. We also carry a few training machines made by Sklz. One of them, the Catapult [$80], is a soft toss. It throws real baseballs underhand style from about four feet away. You hit them into a net. Then there’s the Lightning Bolt Pro [$60], which throws little whiffle balls to you from about 30 feet away. It’s the equivalent of a 60-to-70-mph throw.”

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