GLEN BURNIE - The coach squats beside home plate with a bucket full of baseballs. He tosses one softly in the air, so that it arcs and falls through the strike zone. The hitter, a 15-year-old high school sophomore, waits for it to reach waist height, then launches the bat on a level line, rifling the ball into what would, on a diamond, be right-center field.
"Good," says the coach, nodding. "Good patience, good patience." He grabs another ball and repeats the drill.
This exercise - one of more than 200 that the instructor, Alex Brunet, teaches - is called "Heaven." "The ball drops from high in the sky," he says in explanation, wearing his perpetual smile. "It teaches them to stay back, to wait for the ball to come to them. Very important in hitting."
"Heaven" can be glimpsed inside the cavernous confines of Frozen Ropes, a baseball and softball instruction facility near BWI airport. And this pupil, Jason Glaeser - along with scores of serious area players and coaches - has reason to consider this indoor facility a little bit of paradise. "I'll be starting varsity catcher at Glen Burnie this year," Glaeser says without a hint of hubris. "They break the mechanics down. You learn fast."
At Frozen Ropes, other players have doubled their batting averages, morphing from high school scrubs into college prospects. Legendary high school programs like that of Arundel High bring players here to hone their skills.
"Parents and coaches come in and thank us for what we do," says Brunet. "That's flattering, and we like to hear it, but the kids put in the time. They do the work. We're just facilitators."
A "frozen rope," in baseball terminology, is a well-struck line drive. Ted Williams once said hitting a baseball is the hardest thing to do in sports, and if he wasn't right, he was surely in the ballpark. Given the variety of pitches and the myriad bad habits hitters can develop, a solid liner is a next-to-impossible result to achieve without the benefit of good vision, baseball knowledge and muscle memory, all reinforced by repetition.
With its six batting tunnels, $25,000-plus worth of pitching machinery, a dozen-plus true-believer instructors, full weight room and video facilities, Frozen Ropes - one of 14 franchises, mostly in the east - is no mere batting-cage arcade. The 12,000-square-foot complex offers the full wherewithal to enhance skills year-round.
"All Players ... Satisfied With Mediocrity Are Prohibited From Entering This Facility," reads a sign in each complex. Enfolded in the joke is the chain's true philosophy: Let's get to work, let's concentrate, let's do it right, and let's have fun doing it.
The brainchild of former ballplayer and New York attorney Tony Abbatine, Frozen Ropes merges anatomical and scientific principles with the basics of the Grand Old Game with the aim of teaching skills more rationally, more consistently and more efficiently. Abbatine believed he could create a more precise, clear and regimented breakdown than he'd experienced as a player. Frozen Ropes is the result.
Brunet, 43, and Vicky Medford, 41, co-owners of the Glen Burnie franchise as well as instructors, know the program inside out, and they've gained impressive clientele. Orioles shortstop Mike Bordick is an investor, as well as occasional PR man. Many of the top coaches in the area can't stay away. "I'm all ears when Alex is talking," says John Hildreth, coach of the Chesapeake Clippers, a Howard County team in the Baltimore Metro League that has won numerous tournaments in its three-year existence.
Last year, his 10- and 11-year-old Clippers, after spending three pre-season days at Frozen Ropes, won the Baltimore Metro League and numerous tournaments and qualified for a national tourney in Sarasota, Fla. Adds Anne Arundel's Bernie Walter, a coaching legend whose 38-year record is 2,100-plus wins vs. 450 losses: "They have a sound theory of hitting. What they're doing is exactly right."
An early passion
At the chain's headquarters in upstate Chester, N.Y., Abbatine tries to find words to frame his lifelong love of baseball. "It's the ultimate in father-son interaction," says Abbatine, whose dad died at 46, leaving behind transcendent memories of pepper games, fly balls and long-toss catch. "I think starting Frozen Ropes is my way of reconnecting with him," the son says.
His dad taught him well - not just the mechanics, but also the soul of the game. "I love the smell of the grass," Abbatine says, "the serenity of the outfield before a game, the excitement and passion of little kids, and the fact that there's no clock - that it's timeless."
In the early '90s, Abbatine was a lawyer in private practice in upstate New York. There was an empty basement beneath his building, and he asked permission to build a hitting tunnel there. He got it and started instructing. Soon, word spread; parents brought kids to the place in droves. There was obvious growth potential, and Abbatine expanded.