Grab a helmet, an aluminum bat and a batting glove or two, step into the fenced batting area, insert coin or token, and get ready.

Here's the pitch.

Miss it? Forget it; that was just practice.

Connect? Now you're Oakland Athletics star Jose Canseco taking Texas Rangers fastballer Nolan Ryan downtown with the game on the line.

Automated batting cages, once the exclusive province of hard-core baseball addicts, are fast becoming a preferred playground for suburbanites of all ages and abilities.

Baseball and softball pitching machines have popped up at more than a dozen locations in the Washington suburbs. Often built adjacent to golf driving ranges or video arcades, the batting cages have a simple but alluring purpose: They feed a fantasy.

From Little Leaguers who dream of stardom to yuppies who yearn for a rerun of their glory days, real or imagined, people are plunking down dollar after dollar for the challenge of hitting baseballs and softballs hurled at speeds labeled slow, medium, fast and very fast.

Many of the new outdoor complexes are circular and look something like circus tents made of chain link. At the center, mechanical arms dish out softball- and baseball-sized balls, made of rubber or urethane foam, to individual hitting cages.

Among the most popular are the slow-speed softball cages. On a recent Wednesday, Chris Gurlick spent her lunch hour stroking hit after hit toward the far reaches of the screen, about 150 feet away, at the Batters Box near Gaithersburg.

"I love it. I love it," she said after her pre-playoff game workout. "I bet I spend five to 10 dollars every couple of weeks during softball season."

Nearby, 7-year-old Ryan Borre of Waukegan, Ill., who has a lot more confidence than front teeth, took his cuts while his sister, father and grandfather offered professional, if occasionally conflicting, advice. Ryan's secret for success: "I just try to hit the ball."

A big part of the attraction of the batting cages is watching, along with the many other consultants of swat in attendance. But high school and college baseball stars, and aging suburbanites who think a "Baltimore chop" is a restaurant special rather than a high-bouncing hit, share a level playing field: Nobody hits all of them, but rarely is heard a discouraging word.

A beat of thump, thump, thump -- the sound of missed softball pitches hitting the backstop -- signaled Sterling resident Kathy Thorsen's rough night in the new complex next to Woody's Golf Range in Herndon. But as she bore down, the thump soon yielded to the tink of a foul tip and, finally, the thwack of a smartly hit ball. That elicited whoops from teammate Sharon Hines.

For the purist, there are some indoor batting cages in the region, open year-round. On a recent sunny afternoon, when most people wished they could get outdoors, Alan Perry and Scott Singer took turns hacking at fast baseballs at Collegiate Indoor Sports in Rockville.

"If you're serious, it's probably better to hit inside," said Perry, arguing that because the indoor cages are small, the hitter concentrates on making contact and preparing for the next pitch. The outdoor cages are more for fun, Perry observed, because you can "see where the ball goes."

Prices vary among area batting cages, with public parks generally cheaper than profit-making enterprises. Some facilities offer volume discounts, but don't expect a bonus for being a frequent fouler.

Woody Fitzhugh, who recently opened the Herndon complex, "could never get anybody to throw batting practice" when he was young. Now he can step up to the machine, which set him back a mere $200,000 and change, and hack at baseballs hurled at speeds roughly corresponding to those traveled by cars on the Capital Beltway.

Dick Hall, co-owner of Automated Batting Cages in Salem, Ore., installed cages at five to 10 locations a year in the 1970s. Now he handles almost 70 a year. "It's gone from the big metro areas to the exurbs and small cities," he said. "As the baby boomers got older, they all picked up softball bats."

Batting cages are "really the wave of the '90s in the recreation and amusement field," Hall said. "Instead of a movie, people will drive out and spend a couple of hours" batting, and perhaps playing at an adjacent video arcade or miniature golf course.

Carlton Yoshioka, an associate professor in the Department of Leisure Studies at Arizona State University, says such mechanized entertainment highlights the fragmentation of the family. It's easier for Dad to take Junior to the batting cage than to throw to him in the back yard and chase the results. Yet Yoshioka notes that some families are going to the cages together, which helps.

It was in that spirit that Sterling resident Jack Chungo and his 4-year-old son, Nicholas, paid their first visit to the Herndon cages one recent evening.

"Get ready, just like Yaz," advised Dad, unconcerned that Nick is right-handed and former Boston Red Sox outfielder Carl Yastrzemski wasn't. Soon Dad was swinging, too, for the first time in a generation, but that old feeling was there when ball met bat.

"It's like when you're a little guy out on the school yard," Chungo said. "You have big dreams."