Sounds of spring lead off Batting: The clanging of bats colliding with balls heralds the first day of spring and another season of dreams.

March 21, 1997|By Craig Timberg | Craig Timberg,SUN STAFF

The robin's call. The whisper of lovers. The furious clank of aluminum bats.

They are the sounds of spring. And for those who play ball for love rather than money -- for whom a few good swings have

nearly the restorative powers of a week in Florida -- only the song of baseball counts.

"I may not feel good in the morning," says 65-year-old Carter Spencer after swatting at 20 pitches at an Elkridge batting cage one recent evening, "but I feel good now."

As the Orioles shag flies in sunny Florida, local baseball and softball players have been celebrating the coming of spring -- the sun crossed back to Baltimore's side of the equator at 8: 55 a.m. yesterday -- in the area's handful of indoor batting cages.

There is no other choice in Maryland's messy March, with its frequent rain, cold winds and dusk that comes too soon.

The Rounding Third Sport Center in Elkridge -- a large, nondescript warehouse in an industrial park on U.S. 1 -- sings of baseball. It is a chorus. A cacophony. A clanging, banging kaleidoscope of balls and banter through the batting cages' fencing.

"Hands together," instructs Vince Rodriquez, a 30-year-old Elkridge photographer eager to recruit his wife Jacquie, 31 and a softball neophyte, for his team.

"She likes to crowd the plate," Rodriquez explains a moment later, almost apologizing for a series of weak swings. "But that's lot of information for the first time at the cage."

Pairs, groups and teams -- rather than solo swingers -- are the norm at the cages. Spencer, a retired Baltimore police officer, comes with a gang of players from an Anne Arundel County senior softball league.

They are Monday night regulars, in a kind of spring training for the eternally young. "The great thing about this," Spencer says, "is you're not home watching TV."

But there is more. Baseball and softball are social sports, passed down through generations. Parents line the stairs to the six raised cages at Rounding Third to encourage and cajole, their faces filled with pride and angst.

"He has tryouts tomorrow for Little League," says Dan Green, a Glen Burnie accountant, as his 11-year-old son Jonathan fights off pitches more aggressive than he. "Got to get him warmed up so he's not apprehensive."

Some mothers and fathers go beyond buying tokens for the cages.

At Rounding Third -- where owner Jim Harris estimates his machines have pitched seven million balls since opening in July 1993 -- there also is a batting coach, former Oakland Mills High School star Kevin Young.

Young has played pro ball -- reaching Double-A in the Detroit Tigers organization -- and had a second career as personal assistant to the late Brooklyn Dodger great Roy Campanella, who spent the last 35 years of his life as a quadriplegic after a 1958 car accident.

Several nights a week, Young teaches batting at the Rounding Third cages.

His fee is $35 per half-hour lesson, but one grateful parent gave Young an old Ford Tempo as a bonus. More than two years later, he still drives it.

"They keep coming and coming and coming," Young says. "I have parents who spent thousands of dollars just to see me."

But the batting cage -- amid a strip of U.S. 1 with motels, auto parts stores and a nearby pornography shop -- is not dominated by one segment of Howard County's population. There is a mix of customers: men and women, children and adults, lawyers and truck drivers, blacks, whites and Asians.

There also is a hierarchy. The fastest baseball cages are dominated by muscular young men with tight, fuzzy haircuts.

Eighteen-year-old Adam Bolling smacks 70 mph pitches -- the second-fastest from the pitching machine -- as his girlfriend, Tabitha Shifflett, sits nearby, looking annoyed, warning about his end of the unspoken deal: "Tonight is karaoke night."

The genders and ages blend with the changing ball speeds. In slow-pitch softball, anything goes. White-haired seniors wait in line along with beefy Scott Schuler of Pasadena, 29, who at 6 foot 4 inches and 280 pounds was dubbed "Ox" by Army buddies years ago.

He bashes the softballs arching in from the pitching machine, honing the kind of overpowering stroke that is every left-fielder's nightmare.

It is something he seems to know, saying with a smile: "Getting ready for spring."

Pub Date: 3/21/97

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