Until recently, Washington area residents who got the urge to go out and swing a few fast balls had to hunt for some hardballs, find a friend to pitch them and persuade someone else to chase them.
Such friends are hard to find, and they usually want a chance to swing the bat too.
But now there's a place to go and swing away selfishly until blisters rise. And no one has to worry about running down balls or pitching them over the plate.
Pay pitching machines have come to the Flint Hill Driving Range in Chantilly and word of their presence has would-be hitters of all ages paying 50 cents for 20 swings.
The eight batting cages are the surprise moneymaker on the 18-acres Chantilly complex that also includes a miniature golf course and driving range.
"The machines are bringing in more than miniature gold, but a little less than the golf range," said Morgan Tiller, part owner of the complex.
Tiller, a golf pro for 25 years, owned a driving range in Vienna for several years before selling the land to housing developers.
"Five years ago I thought about bringing in pitching machines," Tiller said, noting that he's seen them being used commercially in other states.
"They seemed like a natural in an area like this where there's so much baseball interest. But I wasn't satisfied with the accuracy of the machines available at that time."
The problem, Tiller said, was that the old "Iron Mike" machines had pitching arms that sometimes slipped when picking up a ball from the machine's feeder. "That caused the ball to spin," Tiller said, which caused variations in speed and accuracy.
Finally, Tiller found an improved machine that does not use the pitching arm and cuts down the spinning. He bought eight of them at $1,200 apiece and spent another $60,000 putting up cages and putting down asphalt on a small, sloping field that rolls the balls into a specially built retrieving and feeding system.
Children are required to wear helmets in the cages, but adults can step in bareheaded to take their licks. The cages are geared to specified speeds between 40 and 80 miles per hour.
"It's the next-best thing to facing Nolan Ryan," said a sweating Bill Babiarz, 27, or Arlington, after a recent stint in the 80 mph cage. "I took about 40 swings, hit maybe six, maybe one solid. But it's my first time out."
Babiarz's friend and college teammate, Mike Battaglini, stepped into the cage and began making contact. He emerged with hands slightly swollen and shaken from gripping his bat tightly.
"I've been here before," Battaglini said. "It's exhilirating. It's a great feeling to know I can still hit 80 mile per hour pitches. I'll spend two or three bucks easy."
Nearby, three hitters were taking turns lashing into 60 mph pitches while keeping totals of their own base hits as honestly as they could.
"This is the first place around here where you can come just to hit balls without having to run them down," said Roger Cox, a Babe Ruth League coach from Falls Church who was involved in a homemade game of base hits with his son Jeff, 14, and a friend, Blair Meason, also 14.
"We started coming out just to straighten out a few hitting problems the kids were having," Cox said. "Now they got their eyes back and we come out just to keep sharp."
It's not unusual for there to be a crowd of 10 to 15 spectators around the cages particularly if a hitter gets in a groove in the 80 mph cage. That's when the talk about swings and strides and wrist action gets serious and voices get soft in deference to the hitter's concentration.
"Oh, yes, we have some people who come out here regularly and spend a few dollars to hit," Tiller said.
As Babiarz emerged after 20 more tough swings, he said, "I've got to try this again," and went to get change for the machine.
His friend Battaglini laughed before re-entering the cage and said, "This place can really turn you on if you're a baseball nut."