SCHOOL'S out, or nearly so, for millions of American youngsters, which raises the question: Where does a baseball-playing girl or boy find a game these days?
Many parents are reluctant to let their children hop on a bike and seek unplanned and unsupervised play. In this environment, one's own yard or neighborhood can become the focus for casual baseball.
Product manufacturers have responded with an array of equipment for backyard play, from inexpensive plastic bat-and-ball sets to costly pitching machines and batting cages.
Some of these products are clearly toys. Even so, many can be found from Wal-Mart and Toys R Us to major sports chains like Hermann's and The Sports Authority. Still others are primarily available direct from the manufacturer.
Calling as a potential consumer, this writer recently requested information from three pitching-machine companies that advertise in USA Today's Baseball Weekly. Each quickly delivered catalogs and price lists.
JUGS, a leading baseball practice-equipment manufacturer in Tualatin, Ore., says more than 12,000 families in the United States have portable JUGS pitching machines in their backyards. The company's economy model, which sits on a tripod and can throw popups, fly balls, and pitches that travel between 34 and 52 miles per hour, sells for $855. Some youth leagues have even replaced human pitchers with JUGS machines.
For those on tighter budgets, Hollywood Bases Inc. sells a nonelectric, spring-activated machine (the Slinger,) that throws polyballs up to 70 m.p.h. from a recommended distance of 25 to 30 feet away.
Still more modest is Playskool's 1-2-3 Baseball, which sells for roughly $25 and won an Industrial Design Excellence Award.
The product is geared for children 3 and up and combines a batting tee with a mechanical popup and pitching machine. Other brand-name toymakers - such as Fisher Price, Nerf, and Mattel - offer a variety of fun products for under $30. Nerf has a collection of foam-grip Liquidator bats ($14.99 per bat-and-ball set). Louisville Slugger and Franklin Sports Industries Inc. also work the youth-baseball market.
The company most responsible for millions of backyard games is Wiffle Ball Inc., in business since the 1950s. A bat and perforated ball costs about $3.
Bill Brower's boyhood experience with a Wiffle Balls was partly the inspiration for his Homerun Ballpark, a miniature ballpark with a 75-foot-long fence, bat, ball, and rubber bases ($79.95). The product encourages the improvisation sometimes lacking in today's parentally structured youth-sports world.