Joyce Valdez (Feb. 22, 1992). Robot Hurlers Challenge Batters
What would the owner of a Major League Baseball team say to a pitcher who never pulls a muscle, doesn’t berate umpires and, best of all, can be had for about $12,000?
“Sign him,” most likely.
Sorry, this “natural” is anything but that.
He’s lifelike, pitching robot that never leaves the mound at east Mesa’s Robot Pitch Stadium, the Valley’s newest batting range.
“This is the closest thing to an actual pitcher you’ll find,” manager Brian Smetana said. “We even have major-leaguers practice with it.”
The high-tech field of dreams at 1829 E. Main St. features eight robots that can hurl balls at speeds approaching 75 mph.
“That’s pretty fast for most people,” Smetana said.
The robots cost four times more than conventional pitching machines, which lob balls from spring-loaded arms or revolving wheels.
Sporting blue uniforms, caps and gloves, the computerized mannequins imitate human movements.
“You get the full-motion effect,” Smetana said. “The leg comes up, the pitching arm comes up, and he follows through with the pitch as he delivers.”
With conventional machines, the batter has little indication when a ball will be tossed across the plate.
In contrast, when the robot leans into a right-arm throw, “you’d better be ready for a pitch,” Smetana said.
Batters get 14 swings for 75 cents, and soon will be able to run up a tab on a special charge card.
Players can control pitches for height and speed, which ranges from 40 to 74 mph. Random pitching heights and speed also are available on automatic mode.
The robots can’t put any English on the ball, so don’t expect anything fancy.
Aaron Russell, 14, who was visiting his grandparents from the Seattle area, spent a recent morning at the batting cage.
“I like it,” he said. “It really simulates an actual pitching situation.”
The sports-amusement park is owned by Richard Oltmann of Chicago, who says he has exclusive North American rights to sell the robot pitchers. They are the wave of the future in the batting-cage business, he predicted.
Oltmann saw a rough version of the robots in Japan four years ago and modified them to appeal to American baseball fans.
“We Americanized their faces and added sound effects to re-create a real baseball atmosphere,” he said.
The sound effects, which come from the backstop, include taunts from an invisible catcher and crowd noises.
The synthetic big leaguers almost seem like the real thing. – but they don’t spit tobacco or scratch themselves.
Technology can only go so far, after all.