Friday, September 19, 2008

Want to improve your hitting? Live in the batting cage. Literally.

While at the A's-Angels game this afternoon, I was reminded of Angels' LF Reggie Willits' incredible story. You may have read or heard about this, but it's too good to pass up.

You've heard the saying, "The guy lives at the gym." Well this kid for the Angels took it to heart.

Here's the full July 2007 story about it from the NY Times, but I'll give an abbreviated version of the Times' story here:

In 2003, [Reggie and his wife Amber] decided to build a 3,000-square-foot house on five acres they own next to his family in Fort Cobb, Okla.

A batting cage happened to be the first part of the house that they built.

But when the cage was finished, Reggie and Amber saw a way to save money from his minor league salary. They did not have to complete the house. They could simply stay in the cage.

From the outside, it looks like a warehouse, 60 feet long and 32 feet wide. But inside, it has everything a baseball family would ever need: a place to eat, sleep and hit.

[In 2006], he was a fringe prospect who had never started a major league game. Today, he is 26, the leadoff hitter for the first-place Los Angeles Angels, batting .337 with 18 stolen bases and a shot at the American League rookie of the year award.

He credits his emergence, at least in part, to the cage he calls home. While other players travel long distances to workout centers in the off-season, Willits merely has to roll out of bed and start taking his hacks.

“It’s very convenient,” said his father, Gene.

When houseguests open the front door, they see a small bathroom and kitchen on the right, and two sofas and a television set on the left. The floors are covered with Berber carpet. The dining room table is adorned with a vase of flowers. There are no closets.

Toward the back, the pitching machine, the weight room and the master bedroom are clustered together. “I did put in one wall,” Reggie said.

When he wants to bat, he pushes aside the sofas to form his personal playing field. He steps inside the net, suspended from the ceiling. If Amber is busy, he hits off a tee.

If she is free, she feeds balls into the pitching machine. Amber stands behind an L-Screen, the kind used to protect batting-practice pitchers. Still, line drives sometimes rip through the screen.

“I know she’s taken a few in the helmet,” said Mickey Hatcher, the Angels’ hitting coach. “But that’s part of the game.”

Two and a half years ago, the Willitses produced a bat boy, their son, Jaxon. They took him right from the hospital to the cage. Jaxon fell asleep to the whir of the pitching machine and the crack of the bat.

When Jaxon was old enough to walk, he helped Reggie collect balls in the cage. And when Reggie left for road trips, Jaxon hit in the cage with his plastic bat.

“He comes out dripping with sweat,” Amber said. “He looks just like his daddy.”

The Willitses are staying in a hotel in Anaheim during the season, but Amber and Jaxon will go back to the cage this summer. In addition to helping Reggie with batting practice, Amber is an elementary-school counselor in Fort Cobb, and she cannot be gone all season.

Until recently, he was not even the most famous athlete from Fort Cobb, population 667. He was overshadowed by his sister, Wendi Willits, who was an expert 3-point shooter for the Los Angeles Sparks of the W.N.B.A.

The [Willits'] new house has two stories, a large foyer and a view of Lake Cobb, filled with geese.

The batting cage will stay in the backyard.