It's a Hit!
Looking like something out of a light-beer commercial, the two white thirty-something men spend their lunch break getting in some practice swings before their fast-pitch softball league starts up for the season. After smacking standard yellow, dimpled batting-cage balls all over the place, one decides to up the ante.
"Hey, could we get this speed up?" he asks Sam Morales, owner and proprietor of the Denver Hitting Club. Morales, who's dressed in the U.S. Postal Service uniform of his paying job, walks over to the pitching machine and cranks the speed up to 50 mph.
The man who'd asked for the velocity boost steps into the batter's box and whiffs fantastically.
So it's a bad light-beer commercial.
It used to be that the only way to witness such batting-cage horrors was to drive out to Aurora or Jefferson County, then stand in line with dozens of suburbanites and patiently wait for your turn at bat. But with the Denver Hitting Club, Morales has launched an inner-city hitter's sanctuary.
"I used to coach youth teams, and we were always trying to find a place to take the kids to hit," explains the 48-year-old Morales, who grew up in Denver and played infield at North High School. "And we'd wind up having to take them out to the suburbs, which was expensive, and the facilities were difficult to get into because all those suburban teams had the places booked. And that's why those teams were so good, because they were constantly working on their hitting. I always wondered why there was nothing like that in Denver."
So after hanging up his hat as North's assistant varsity baseball coach in 2002, Morales took over an old paint shop at 2243 Curtis Street and opened the Denver Hitting Club. Its mission statement: "To make you a better baseball or softball hitter today, for tomorrow." Morale's personal mission is to cater to the kids who live in the low-income neighborhoods around the club, offering discounts for rec center teams and opening his doors at times that young athletes can practice.
"I love having the kids come in," Morales says with a coach's pride. "Kids who have never been to an indoor place, they come in and it's great watching them improve. Some come in who like to play, but they just have no idea about the basics. They've got their hands all over the place, they're swinging wildly. I like to show them the right way to play. And it's amazing how quickly they catch on."
While suburban mega-cages boast sleeker facilities, the Denver Hitting Club is a medicine-ball-and-jump-rope kind of place. The narrow space is dominated by two cages -- the center netting can be removed to make one larger cage -- where hitters feed the balls to one another through old-school Pitching Pro gas-powered pitching machines, then collect the balls and switch positions. If you're flying solo, Morales will feed the balls for you or even pitch himself if you need to practice off a live arm. But for the most part, people come to the Hitting Club in groups and just make themselves at home. The Cervezeros from La Liga Latina de Béisbol are regulars here, bumping beats they bring in from the stereo in the back, constantly critiquing each other's cuts. Morales also hosts the Hitting Challenge League, in which teams of two to four players compete head to head with live pitching in a game familiar to anyone who has ever played on a school baseball team in Colorado, where snow frequently moves spring practices indoors. Certain spots on the wall indicate singles, doubles, triples and home runs, and ghost runners are tracked to simulate a nine-inning game. Stats from the league are kept online at www.denverhittingclub.com, and the players take the game seriously. "It gets super-intense in here," Morales says. "You have a lot of guys talking stuff, all the guys gathered at the fences at the back of the cages and cheering their teammates on. It's a lot of fun."
Morales keeps batting-practice prices low -- $8 for thirty minutes, $12 for an hour, discounts for four or more players -- and even offers instructional courses during which he shares his coaching expertise. But if you ask for advice, he'll happily oblige free of charge. Sometimes he'll offer suggestions on his own.
"The other day I had this dad bring in a six-year-old kid, and he was pitching to him," Morales recalls. "The dad was unhappy with the results, and he was yelling at the kid a little bit, so I stepped in and asked if they needed any help."
The father obliged, and Morales took the timid six-year-old over to an area at the front of the space, where several plates are lined up so that hitters can practice their swing without actually hitting a ball. When Morales saw that the boy was stepping out on each pitch, he put down a wood board and told him not to step beyond that when swinging. After a few cuts, the kid got the hang of it.
"Then I put him back in the cages, and he had picked it right up," Morales said. Father and son left happy that day, having both learned a thing or two.
At the Denver Hitting Club, it's all about making better ball players. Today for tomorrow.
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