AS I ENTER the batting cage at Occoquan Regional Park, voices from my past begin their chant: "Hey, batter batter! Hey, batter batter!"
With an obligatory tap on the plate, I settle in for my first pitch since quitting the Garden City Indians 13 years ago. It comes in just as promised -- a nice slow-moving baseball right down the pipe. "Hey, batter batter! Hey, batter batter -- SWING!" Swing I do. Steeerike one.
The next ball rolls into the chute. "Hey, batter batter! Hey, batter batter -- SWING!" Another big stroke. Steeerike two.
The phantom bench jockies are riding me hard. The time has come. I knock imaginary dirt off my sneakers and spit on my hands like the big leaguers. "Just meet the ball," my father's words echo. "Don't knock it out of the park." The ball comes in as fat and yellow as an autumn moon. "Hey, batter batter! Hey, batter batter" -- and with one mighty stroke I smack that baseball somewhere between right field and next Tuesday.
y y y There are nine pitching machines at Occoquan Regional Park. Their velocities range from slow softball to very fast baseball, where the balls shoot out of the machine at 85 m.p.h. For 50 cents, you get 20 pitches, and they'll all be in the strike zone -- comforting to those of us who spent childhood dodging wild pitches from delinquents. The machines won't throw you any curves either. Just twenty straight and true smokers right down the middle.
The park supplies all necessary equipment -- helmet, bat and balls -- but if you're crazy for the crack of a Louisville slugger, you'll have to bring your own. Occoquan bats are all made of long-lasting aluminum, and they only go ping. You might also want to bring a pair of batting or golf gloves. Just a few foul tips will make your hands sore and blistered.
The batting cages at Occoquan have been open since early September, but now's the perfect time to go slugging: After all, the World Series is under way and everyone's looking for "Mr. October."
y y y After two hours of line drives, grounders and pop-ups, I'm ready for the big challenge. Fast baseball isn't fast enough anymore. It's time to face the ace. I pick up a lighter bat, check out the wind direction and step into the cage against Mr. Smoke, the 85 m.p.h. gun.
"Give me your best, Mr. Hot Shot Pitching Machine," I mutter. FOOM, the ball is in the backstop. Four pitches later, I finally get the bat off my shoulder. Strike 5.
After fourteen more pitches, the count is 0 for 19 and I'm disgusted. Time to get mean. The eyes narrow. The fingers grip the bat with new authority. The body coils like a cobra ready to strike as the last ball drops into the chute . . . FOOM. Strike 20, you're out. As I step out of the cage, a small boy is watching. "Not my fault, kid," I say. "Sun got in my eyes." BATTER UP The batting cages at Occoquan Regional Park are open from 3 p.m. until dark on weekdays and from 9 a.m. to dark on weekends through November. All equipment is supplied, 20 pitches for 50 cents. To get there, take I-95 south to Route 123 north, right to the park. For information, call 352-5900.
Or you can take your swings at the Chantilly Family Recreation Center. Equipment is supplied, 20 pitches for 50 cents. Take U.S. 50 west, turn left onto Lee Road (right after Route 28), and follow it to the Center. 378-8298.