Gearing Up


Ted Williams says hitting a baseball is the toughest feat in sports.

But Williams, a Hall of Fame outfielder with the Boston Red Sox, didn't need much help hitting a baseball. He won six American League batting titles in 19 seasons and was the last major leaguer surpass .400, hitting .406 in 1941.

But there are plenty of baseball players, from Little Leaguers to major leaguers, who can use all the assistance they can get.

Problems at the plate can range from too long a swing to too long a stride, from bad form to bad habits to bad hands. But for every problem, a sports equipment manufacturer has probably tried to build a solution.

There are pitching machines that can throw balls fast, slow, straight and curved. They range from less than $200 to more than $2,000. Some machines will simply toss a ball straight up, so a batter can work on his hand-eye coordination.

Other training devices include the "Instructo-Swing," which is endorsed by Ken Griffey Jr. and looks like a giant hairpin on a stand; batting gloves that promise to reduce vibrations and strengthen grips; large, netted screens to catch batted balls; and batting cages that can be built in the backyard.

There are more exotic products, such as "The Hollywood Bases Stride Glide," which promises to teach a player the proper footwork and pivot to improve the swing; and the "Pro Cut Bat Weight," which clamps to a bat's handle in an attempt to help strengthen forearms and improve swing speed.

"The market is huge for training equipment right now," said Alex Castillo, national advertising manager for Baseball Express, a San Antonio-based company that earned $16.3 million in 1998 selling everything from training equipment to uniforms through stores and catalogs and over the Internet.

"Instead of letting little Johnny play video games all day," Castillo said, "more parents are getting equipment he can take into the backyard and practice for his game on Saturday."

The question remains, of course, is how well does this equipment work? What is the best investment for a player and his parents?

Three experts said the simplest ideas are the best.

"I don't like gimmicks," said Rod Carew, the Angel hitting coach and a Hall of Famer who had 3,053 hits and won seven AL batting titles in 19 seasons.

"I like the tees and the soft toss that's done by people, not machines. During the season, I don't like our players hitting off pitching machines that much unless it's a curveball machine so they can see the break. Otherwise, it can interfere with timing.

"But I don't like things like the stride boards. You have to develop a feel for your stride as you do your stroke. You can use those things, but they won't help."

Rick Down has played, coached and managed in professional baseball for 25 years. He is in his first season as hitting coach for the Dodgers, and has worked in that capacity for the Angels, Yankees and Orioles. He agreed with Carew.

"You only develop a good swing through repetition," Down said. "There are no shortcuts. Working off batting tees is the easiest and most cost-effective way to practice."

Tony Gwynn of the San Diego Padres, a winner of eight NL batting titles in 18 seasons and only 18 hits shy of 3,000 in his career, is well known for his study of videotape and use of state-of-the-art pitching machines to work on his batting stroke.

But Gwynn, too, said batting tees are the best investment. They range from $15 to $150.

"I like to keep things simple," he said. "Much of the stuff you see in the catalogs, from my perspective, is for the advanced hitter who has an idea what he wants or needs to work on.

"If you're just starting out, you should use tees, Wiffle Balls and batting gloves that fit snugly. The tee is the best thing you can do by yourself. And I like Wiffle Balls on the tee rather than baseballs. If you hit the Wiffle Ball correctly, it has no spin--it acts like a knuckleball. If you hit it and the ball has spin, it can tell you the bat angle from which the contact was made."

However, Down said, no training device works if it's not used properly.

"Few of these products by themselves can show you a good swing," Down said. "You need someone with expertise to show you the right way to do things so you can use the training aids to repeat what you've learned."

Carew said beginning and intermediate players interested in improving their swings should get professional instruction at a hitting school.

"But be careful. There are too many people out there teaching hitting who don't know what they are talking about," said Carew, who ran a hitting school for several years. "You have to watch out for people who don't teach basics but teach what they want to teach.

"Swings are as individual as fingerprints. You have to work with [the talent] your kid has. Most parents think all they have to do is buy this stuff and it will automatically make their kid a great hitter. It won't. That's why you have to get with the right people, learn the basics and use [equipment] to reinforce what they're taught."

There are several baseball instructional schools in the county, including the Ron Lefebvre Baseball and Softball Training Center in Irvine, and three in Mission Viejo: The Grand Slam, Power Baseball and Softball and Richard Hickey Baseball and Softball Instruction.

Lefebvre and his instructors use boat oars, tennis racquets and golf clubs with the heads removed, as well as the latest batting and video equipment, to teach hitting.

"I see too many people go to the batting cage and just swing away because they don't know what else to do," Lefebvre said. "You should videotape your swing to see where the flaws are. Then buy specific equipment to correct those flaws."

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