By Chace Bryson | Photos by Phillip Walton
Had he not been prepared for it, Rocco Fitzgerald almost certainly would’ve been convinced someone was trying to fool with him. Catch him off guard. Weird him out.
Because this batting cage was really talking to him.
A 10-year-old player in the Roddy Ranch Baseball Organization, Fitzgerald had been in plenty of batting cages before. But none with so many bells and whistles, and certainly none that talked to him.
Fitzgerald was trying out the SmartKage at Mike Murphy Baseball Academy in Concord, a technologically enhanced batting cage which can test, analyze and evaluate players across several measurables “” and not just for hitters, but fielders and pitchers as well. Developed by a Boston-based company, SmartSports, the SmartKage has been in a trial stage over the past year “” which led to its installation at the Concord baseball school, one of just 100 test sites chosen across the country.
After a year of exhibitions, if you will, the SmartKage plans on fully opening for business and hopes to have as many as 150 operating in full by the end of 2014. Players of any level will be able to go online and purchase a 45-minute testing session. The computer will then provide the player with a code which he or she can use at any SmartKage.
In the meantime, it’s certainly won Murphy over.
“It’s amazing,” said Murphy, who officially opened his baseball school in 2002 after retiring from a 13-year professional baseball career. “The hard numbers that you get from the test are invaluable when it comes to seeing where a player is with his physical ability. It’s a huge tool for us. We can take those numbers and we can improve on every one of those numbers. With the amount of data that we get and the type of data we get, we can tailor all of our instruction for that player to precisely what he or she need.”
It’s no surprise Murphy’s facility was hand-picked to host the device, which will be the only one in a 60-mile radius of his location. The Mike Murphy Baseball Academy has drawn a reputation as being one of the most family-friendly, and all-inclusive baseball training centers in the East Bay over the past decade.
“We really strive to make every single player feel like they’re the star when they walk in here,” said Murphy, who has a staff of seven full-time instructors who Murphy trains for up to three months before allowing them to take on their first full-time player. “Everybody gets the same effort, whether it’s the player who is just beginning or the one who is leading his or her league in hitting.”
The results speak for themselves, too. Murphy’s list of alumni who have reached the college level exceeds 300 names now. In fact, in the cage directly adjacent to Fitzgerald and the SmartKage, De La Salle-Concord senior infielder Myles Coston worked on hitting off a tee. One week later, Coston signed his letter of intent to play for Fresno State.
FItzgerald, and his Roddy Rippers teammate Griffin DeRusso, are put through all the tests by the SmartKage. They do 10-yard sprints, fielding response drills, vertical leaps and of course the basic hitting and pitching mechanics. Were this a month or so later, the boys would receive a print out at the end of the session showing them their results and how they compare to any other kid their age who has used one of the 150-plus SmartKage’s nationwide.
They could then apply those numbers to their training and work on becoming better players for the Antioch-based travel baseball club which has grown rapidly in just its first full year. This, despite the fact that some of the club’s first workouts occurred in an open space area near the maintenance sheds among the rolling hills at Roddy Ranch Golf Course.
“It started out in the Fall of 2013 with a few of us parents looking for the best opportunity for our children to experience baseball outside of an in-house league,” Roddy Ranch Baseball co-founder Tony DeRusso explained. “We never really found out that quite fit our goals and our expectations for what a travel baseball team should be. So with the support of Roddy Ranch Golf Course and Jack and Donna Roddy, we decided to we’d start our own team and give it a go.”
The club began with a 9U (Rippers) and 11U (Riders) team and they combined to win just one game over their first fall season. But by spring, the reputation of the club as an all-inclusive, family-friendly organization “” not unlike Mike Murphy Baseball “” allowed for two more teams to be added.
“We’re about developing the character in these young kids,” DeRusso said. “We recognize the numbers that 1 in every 16,000 kids go on and play Major League Baseball, but pretty much everyone of them goes on to be husbands, fathers, employees and business people. We’re very interested in developing that character through the game of baseball.”
And the team’s are winning now, too. The Rippers (now a 10U team) picked up their first tournament title in the spring, and the Rattlers (a new 9U club) brought home a trophy as well. The Riders (12U now) and Rebels (13U) have been competitive as well.
So far, the clubs have played in tournaments throughout Northern California, and have gone as far as Reno.
However, it’s possible Fitzgerald will remember it as the club that brought him to the talking batting cage.
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