Let’s Play cATch

This is the third post in a series describing assistive tech and adaptations related to J’s first season of Challenger League Baseball.  First, I adapted a baseball glove for J to wear in the field.  Then I adapted a ball cap for J to wear with J’s headrest.  Today I want to share my first attempt at helping J further participate in the field.

As you may remember, J’s favorite part of baseball is batting.  In fact, J’s favorite position is Designated Hitter (it’s a good thing we got on the Blue Jays, an American League team Smile).  I believe part of the reason that J is not too fond of fielding has to do with what fielding entails from J’s point of view. 

When we head out to the field, I help J put on her adapted a baseball glove and then wheel out our spot at second base with J’s friends.  We get ready for the other team to bat.  Any time a ball is hit, we either charge the ball, backup first base, or cover second base depending on the situation.  For J, the running can be fun but if the play involves the ball coming to us it really means that dad catches and then helps J throw the ball.  Not a lot of independence there.

I started to think of ways to increase J’s direct participation in the field.  My first thoughts were around helping J throw the ball.  I imagined a scenario where we would charge a ground ball.  I would field the ball, load it into something, J would activate that something, and the ball would be thrown/shot/flung/whatever across the field to a teammate.  Now that might increase J’s interest in fielding.

Again going with my first thought, I started to imagine a switch adapted pitching machine.  After all, pitching machines already exist and are designed to throw a baseball.  I thought someone must have already switch adapted one.  Then I remembered an internet video I saw somewhere.  It was taken by a dad, and showed his two sons.  One was pitching batting practice to his brother.  The brother pitching happened to have Cerebral Palsy and was using, you guessed it, a switch adapted pitching machine.  I knew I was on the right track.

I did a quick Bing search for “switch adapted pitching machine”.  Among the hits were a patent for exactly what I was looking, and a “Wireless Pitching Machine” from Enabling Devices.

Wireless Pitching Machine from Enabling Devices

It looked promising, so I ran the idea past AT Mom, got approval( Winking smile ), and made the purchase.  I then waited and watched the front porch for what seemed like 5 – 7 business days.  Smile  When it arrived, I tore into the box, did some finishing assembly (Enabling Devices does most of the assembly for you), and scoured the house for the needed batteries.

Playing Catch With Daddy 009

Enabling Device’s Wireless Pitching Machine with J’s switch connected.

I was glad to see that the pitching machine came with both the wireless controller (which has a switch port) and a direct switch port to the machine itself.  I like plugging J’s switch directly into the what it is going to control.  I feel it makes it more obvious to J: “press this switch and that thing it is connected to will do something.”

I turned on the pitching machine, loaded the three foam balls that came with it, and pressed the pitch button.  I could hear the flywheel spin into action.  WWWWWWHHHHHRRRRRRRR!!!!!!! Then out came the first ball – thup!  I caught it and started to see J using this on the ball field when all of a sudden – thup!  A second ball flew at me.  Followed by – thup!  The third ball flew through the air towards me.  Well, that was my first hiccup. 

It turns out that the Fisher-Price pitching machine that Enabling Devices adapted was intended to be used as a batting practice trainer.  Of course that makes sense.  Kid presses the button, grabs the bat, and gets three pitches to hit – thup, thup, thup!  Still it was not what I was hoping for as an AT solution for helping J throw the ball while fielding.

I thought, “no big deal, just load one ball and after it throws that one it will just spin and not throw anything else.”  But like I said, that was just the first hiccup.

Playing Catch With Daddy 030

J about to throw a few balls AT Dad’s way.

The next thing I did was grab one of J’s Challenger League baseballs.  They may be a touch smaller than a traditional baseball (or about the same size), but they are much softer (in case anyone gets hit by one).  I loaded it into the machine, hit the button, and ……… nothing.  The weight of the baseball was too much for the loader mechanism and the ball was jamming the flywheel.  I pushed it through with my bare hands.  Hmmmm….

Then I got the idea to start the flywheel before loading the baseball.  I pressed the button, the flywheel whirred up to speed, I dropped the ball into the loading tube, and ……… flup.  The ball sputtered out onto the floor after a two foot flight with an apex of about 6 inches above the ground.  Not exactly throwing anyone out from second with that.  Hmmmm….

Then I got the idea to use a tennis ball.  Challenger Baseball is a wonderfully accommodating environment.  They use whatever type of ball a batter needs to be able to make contact.  Bright balls that are easier to see.  Softballs that are easier to hit.  Racquetballs that fly off the bat a bit further.  Why not change the ball in the field to accommodate a player’s throwing ability?

I acquired a pack of tennis balls and loaded one into the machine and knew we had a problem.  The smaller size of the tennis ball and the additional weight (when compared to the foam balls that came with the machine) meant the tennis ball fell right past the loader mechanism into the bottom of the machine.  I turned the thing upside down and extracted the tennis ball.  Hmmmm….

What about starting the flywheel first again?  I pressed the button, the flywheel whirred up to speed, I dropped the tennis ball into the loading tube, and ……… flup. The tennis ball sputtered out onto the floor after a three foot flight with an apex of about 8 inches above the ground.  Better but still not throwing anyone out at first.  Hmmmm….

What about the foam balls that came with the machine?  I loaded up the three balls to see how far they flew, hit the button, heard the flywheel whirr up to speed, then THUP! then THUP! then THUP!  All three flew between 9 and 9-1/2 feet with an apex of about 24 – 28 inches.  All of those measurements were on the flattest trajectory setting (there are three trajectory angles) and with the machine sitting on the floor.  Increasing the trajectory angle shortened the distance and increased the apex of the ball flight, as expected.

Well it looks like this idea was a bust for helping J participate further in the fielding aspect of baseball.  However, it has become a very fun activity to play catch with daddy.  I bring the machine out on the back deck and place it on our table or we go in the front yard and I place it on a deck chair.  I load all three foam balls and let J decide when to press the switch.  I then go crazy trying to catch all three balls.  There are times I miss one or two and have to go chase it across the deck/yard.  There are other times I attempt crazy diving catches because I was “caught out of position”.  J also likes to catch me when my guard is down – activating the switch after I turn my back or go for a drink of water. Smile

AT Dads Place Action Shot

Hey dad, catch!

I haven’t given up yet though.  The next step is a bit more advanced.  I am just waiting for the right time try some voltage modifications on the machine.  I am hoping that increasing the voltage provided to the motor will increase the flywheel speed which will result in further throwing distances.  Just don’t tell AT Mom before I can get a chance to try.  Winking smile


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