Baseball cages a hit

Children practising in a baseball batting cage at The Hit Factory. -- PHOTO: THE HIT FACTORY
Children practising in a baseball batting cage at The Hit Factory. -- PHOTO: THE HIT FACTORY
Co-owners of automated batting facility Homerun Baseball (from left) Michael Chiu, Oswin Shen and Kai Wen Sheng. -- ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN
Co-owners of automated batting facility Homerun Baseball (from left) Michael Chiu, Oswin Shen and Kai Wen Sheng. -- ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

Automated batting facilities for baseball and softball see brisk business after recent openings

At least two automated batting facilities have sprung up here in the past year as interest in baseball and softball picks up in Singapore.

The latest, called Homerun Baseball, opened last Saturday and features a fully automated indoor batting cage. It has three baseball batting lanes, a softball batting lane and a pitcher lane.

Unlike other automated batting cages here, the machines at Homerun Baseball operate on a conveyor belt system which feeds the balls back to each machine, saving players the hassle of picking them up.

Mr Oswin Shen, 26, Homerun Baseball's director, says the machines were imported from Cresco, the largest batting cage machine supplier in Japan.

"We chose Cresco for the stability and consistency of its machines, which are better than those from Taiwan as Cresco is the original maker of the automated pitching machine," says the Singaporean.

While the Japanese and Taiwanese are well-known for their passion for baseball and softball in this region, interest in the two sports has grown "tremendously" in the last two years, says Singapore Baseball and Softball Association president Jeffeury Tan. "Our national standard has been improving and more parents are attracted to send their kids to play these sports."

He adds that the association will have a new ballpark in Kallang next month, with a batting cage and three open fields. It is for the use of the national softball and baseball teams as well as the public.

Mr Shen hit upon the idea of launching Homerun Baseball last year when he and a friend, Mr Kai Wen Sheng, 26, visited their friend, Mr Michael Chiu, 24, in Taiwan. The three of them now co-own the business, which cost about $500,000 to set up.

"When Mike and Kai first took me to the batting cage, I realised that everything is provided - the bats, gloves and helmets. All you need is a few swings to get the momentum and you can pick up the game easily," says Mr Shen, a former professional basketball player with Tagawa, a Singapore National Basketball League Division One team.

The trio, who have known each other since their secondary school days, say their batting cage is open to people of all ages and prior experience is not required. For safety reasons, however, those below the height of 1.2m are not allowed to play.

The softball and baseball batting lanes have varying pitching speeds. The speed of the softball lane is set at 80kmh, while that for the three baseball lanes is at 80, 90 and 110kmh.

Homerun Baseball's machines operate on a token-based system and each token is worth 15 balls. Prices range from $10 for three tokens for students to $20 for five tokens for non-members. Homerun Baseball offers a membership package at $50 for one year. Mr Shen says more than 100 such packages have been sold since last Saturday.

First-time baseball player Kelly Yee, 23, described the batting cage as "fun and addictive". She spent 10 hours with friends trying out the different lanes on Homerun's opening day. "I've always wanted to go to Taiwan where they have the cages, but it's too far," says the tele-sales officer. "I plan to come back on weekends or after work to relieve stress."

The Hit Factory, another batting cage facility here, has also seen brisk business since it opened in Woodlands Centre Road in August last year. Besides cage rentals, it also offers training programmes by professional coaches.

Mr Brad Finefrock, 42, The Hit Factory's co-owner, says all of its programmes "have been running at full capacity".

There are 361 players in its clinics, teams, school programmes and private lessons, and the owners plan to expand the indoor facility and combine it with two outdoor training fields, he adds.

The Hit Factory's pitching machines are imported from the United States. Mr Finefrock says these are the same machines used by American professional baseball organisations in the US.

And unlike Homerun Baseball, its pricing is based on the number of minutes played. It costs $30 to play for 15 minutes in larger cages and $25 to play in a smaller cage for the same duration.

Mr Finefrock says he and co-owner Mike Froemke, 40, decided to open The Hit Factory as there was a large population of schoolkids that play baseball but "there weren't sufficient facilities or programmes for them".

While Mr Shen says Homerun Baseball is in talks with local baseball and softball associations to let them use the facility as training grounds, he says that the batting facility is for the average Joe.

Baseball and softball, dropped from the 2012 London Olympics, are being considered for reinstatement by the International Olympic Committee for the 2020 Games in Tokyo, he noted. "So we hope to promote these sports in Singapore."

feliciac@sph.com.sg