Batman forever

A grown-up nerd overcomes his childhood fear of sports at a local business offering fun for all ages

Stepping into a batting cage is like entering an isolation chamber.

Stepping into a batting cage is like entering an isolation chamber.

Photo By LAUREN RANDOLPH

I’ve never been good at sports. In an official ranking of The All-Time Top 10 Worst Experiences of My Life, at least three of the events occurred in the gymnasium and/or locker room at Pine Middle School. I was an awkward kid, with glasses and an embarrassing haircut. And though I was quite knowledgeable about any number of subjects—most especially Metallica lyrics and the exact physical dimensions of the ladies of Marvel Comics—I could never understand any of the rules of baseball, basketball or volleyball. Athleticism, or even basic physical coordination, was never my forte. (Football, weirdly enough, I was able to handle. Lacking all grace and finesse, I was nonetheless aggressive enough to make a passable lineman.)

Is there a crueler tradition than the picking of teams? Two charismatic, jock-ular guys alternating “I’ll take Bill,” and “I’ll take Mike,” until all that’s left leaning against the bleachers is the fat kid who smells like horseradish, the kid who plays with Barbies, and me.

My desperate attempts to prove those team captains wrong always ended disastrously. Once, during a basketball game, after the gym teacher had prompted the team captains to pass more often, I somehow managed to catch the ball just to the side of the basket. I had an open shot! I took aim and gave the ball my best push, and then, swoosh!

At first, I thought I had actually made it. “Nothing but net!” I was ready to boast. But really, the ball had fallen somewhat short of its mark and had just grazed the underside of the net and now, due to some unintentional backspin, it was headed right back toward where I stood, neck craned back, watching the ball.

Crack! Right in the nose, which promptly started bleeding, and then my glasses flew off, broken in half. The gym teacher called out, “Time! Bynum! You OK, chief?”

I was fumbling on the ground, looking for my glasses, trying my best not to add tears to the blood already streaming down my face.

Answering the teacher was too much. “I’m fine,” I said, the last word more of a snivel than a syllable as the dam of tears burst.

And then I had to go to the locker room and take off my clothes in front of all the other players.

Tom Newell owns Tommy’s Grand Slam batting cage in Sparks.

Photo By LAUREN RANDOLPH

Cage fight

So that was in seventh grade. Eighth grade was a little better, and then I managed to mostly avoid team sports all through high school and college. But then, in my mid and late 20s, a funny thing started to happen. Though I’ve always been more of a belly-itcher than a pitcher, I suddenly became interested in sports. I started to enjoy watching sports on TV and reading up on sports history.

Especially baseball.

Baseball has a lot of things I value: a rich and exciting history full of larger-than-life characters, odd facts, bizarre rituals and wicked curses. The game itself has an element of chess-like strategy and a stop-and-go rhythm that can be, depending on the mood and stakes, either relaxing or engagingly nerve-wracking.

Then the Aces came to town, and then, like a lot of folks in Reno, I went a little baseball nuts.

On a recent Friday evening, some friends and I went to Tommy’s Grand Stand, a grill and deli out in BFE industrial Sparks, to scratch our baseball itch. They serve beer and better-than-average burgers and chicken sandwiches and things, but the real attraction is the batting cages. Batting cages are chain-link fence-enclosed rectangles, with a home plate at one end and an automated pitching machine—basically a robot cannon that fires baseballs—at the other end.

The tokens for the cages cost $2.50 apiece, and that gets you 20 pitches. (I think it was 20 pitches. I was too nervous to count.) You can adjust the speed for either softball pitches or baseball pitches. We tried softball pitches and baseball pitches at 45 and 55 mph—about half the speed of what they pitch in the Major Leagues, but more than fast enough for us amateurs.

Stepping into the cage wearing a helmet and holding a baseball bat is like entering an isolation chamber, or a Roman arena. Time slows down; the country music in the background sounds like it’s underwater. You’re alone, cut off from the rest of the world, and even if your friends are there rooting you on, you can’t really hear them, and all you can really see is the menacing, glowing red Cylon/Terminator eye on the other side of the cage, ready to fire at you. You get into your stance, and wait. It’s man versus machine. Then there’s a pneumatic pop, and you see the ball, a flurry of white, come toward the plate, and then you swing.

And if you’re me, you usually miss. But on those rare occasions that you do hit, there’s a cathartic whack as the ball ricochets off into some imaginary foul territory.

I fared best with the 45 mph balls. I could never quite find the right pace for the softball pitches, with the plump ball and its slow, loping arc. And 55 mph is a little too fast for my beautiful, beautiful body, which manages the seemingly impossible feat of being both scrawny and flabby. But with those 45 mph balls, I had a couple of dead-on hits. Singles, at least.

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Ace of baseball

The food at Tommy’s is more than just peanuts and Cracker Jacks. The burgers compare favorably to any other sports bar grill in town. And there are plenty of options—hand-pressed burger patties, at either a quarter or a half pound, or vegetarian patties. I went with the quarter pound bacon cheeseburger ($5.50, with fries). It’s good grub, and the dining area in the middle is set up like a park full of picnic tables—a good spot for a birthday party.

The batting cages provide a surprisingly good work out. (Either that, or I’m even more out-of-shape than I thought.) My arms were sore and vibrating when, a couple of days after our visit, I talked to Tom Newell, who, along with his wife, Michelle, owns and manages Tommy’s Grand Slam. The business originally started back in 1987 with different owners, Carol and Skender Brame, and a different location, right next to Wild Waters.

When the original owners retired, the Newells purchased the cages and the business and moved to their current location in 2002. Tom, a graduate of Douglas High School, worked for the Brames before purchasing the business, but before that, he spent 11 years playing professional baseball, including a couple of games in the Majors pitching for the Philadelphia Phillies.

“Before I blew my shoulder out,” he says. “Aren’t I lucky?”

He’s lean, handsome in a way you might not notice at first, and so soft-spoken it’s hard to tell if he means good luck (for getting to play in the Majors) or bad luck (for blowing out his shoulder as soon as he got there).

Part of the appeal of Tommy’s Grand Slam is that it’s genuinely fun for all ages. There’s beer and wine to be had, but a very family-friendly atmosphere. In addition to the food and cages, there are arcade games and practice tunnels, with two in-house instructors, Denae Jones and Mike Riley. There are also TVs for watching sporting events, and Newell says a big chunk of their business is lunchtime diners from nearby businesses and warehouses.

“There’s a fine line there,” says Newell. “Because when you bring in the food and wine or liquor … we’ve hit it right in the middle, where you’ve got the family [atmosphere], or if you want to come in and have a few beers, you don’t feel like you’re in a bar. You know, you don’t have to love baseball because there are other things to do here.”

There’s a lot of fun to be had, whether you’re an aspiring athlete, a family with young’ns, or just a group of friends looking for a good time—it’s even fun for those of us who suck at sports.

“There’s so many more people who just don’t know we’re here,” says Newell. “Though we’ve been here for 22 years, so we must be doing something right.”