"I figure you only get one great idea in a lifetime," says Mike Hall, who keeps his brainstorm in a padlocked room in back of the Braves dugout at Atlanta Fulton County Stadium. Behind a door that is also guarded by a sign that reads PLAYERS & COACHES ONLY: NO EXCEPTIONS sits the invention Hall came up with in a dream five years ago. "Woke up in a cold sweat," he says. "Sat right up there in bed and said, 'My god, will it work?' "
Hall's vision turned reality is the most curious marriage of baseball and television since Phil Rizzuto began broadcasting. It appears to be just a batting cage facing a 15- by 15-foot sailcloth screen 55 feet away, the approximate distance a ball travels once a pitcher releases it. However, a videotape of any major league pitcher can be beamed onto the screen from a projection unit on the floor. When the TV pitcher's throwing hand passes over a baseball-sized hole in the screen, a machine behind the screen fires one of seven pitches—at speeds as high as 104 mph—through the hole at the batter in the cage. The result: three-dimensional television, without the funny glasses.
"Amazing," said Montreal utility man Rex Hudler, after the Expos were allowed to take BP against the TV. "Are we going to get one?" asked Expo outfielder Hubie Brooks.
As Hall says, "Everyone's eyes light up when they see it for the first time."
The Braves, who haven't decided if they will buy the machine, first saw it on June 20, when general manager Bobby Cox let Hall set up his contraption in the bowels of the ballpark. By spring training, Hall will have produced enough models of what he calls the Determinator to supply all 26 major league teams.
Hall, 41, a native of Rome, Ga., who at various times has been a semipro ballplayer and professional bass fisherman, is protective of his creation, the patents for which are pending. Though the Determinator can approximate almost any pitch, Hall hasn't yet programmed it to throw a sequence of pitches. "We're still working on things," he says, referring to himself and 10 associates who have set up shop in an Atlanta warehouse that also serves as the office for three-month-old Determinator Technology Inc.
The Determinator's screen has six holes that can be uncovered to accommodate lefthanders, tall pitchers, sidearmers and the like. It also hides Hall's wife, Carol, who feeds balls to the pitching machine and adjusts it to simulate various pitches. Hall, who can clone any pitcher, sees the Determinator in amusement parks as well as ballparks. "I know people would love to try to hit Phil Niekro's knuckler," he says.
Atlanta pitcher Derek Lilliquist is eager to be taped so he can "take some hacks" off a taped Derek Lilliquist. First baseman Tommy Gregg is less particular. "I try to hit against it every day," he says. "The coaches are always telling us to use mental imagery, to visualize things when we take BP, and this makes it that much easier."
Infielder Jeff Blauser, however, says that switching from live pitchers to taped ones fouls up his depth perception. "Against the machine, you're hitting off a flat movie screen," he says.
But even Atlanta coach Bobby Wine, who broke his right hand while trying to bunt a 92 mph fastball thrown by a video version of Braves farmhand Steve Avery, can forgive a few imperfections. "It wasn't Avery's fault," says Wine. "I mean, the kid's supposed to throw a 92-mile fastball."
Alas, since Wine was injured, Braves management has told Hall to turn down the heat, which is probably why Montreal batters tattooed Atlanta's Tom Glavine on video on a recent afternoon, and then were held to six hits by a flesh-and-blood Glavine that night. Still, the Expos were impressed.
Said Hudler of the TV image, "You see the centerfielder out there where he's supposed to be, you see the ball coming out of the pitcher's hand, you have the same view you have in a game. The only difference is that in real life, Glavine has a lot better stuff."
But not when the Determinator is really humming.