In 2001, the Chicago Tribune interviewed Kevin Sherrod, a former Proviso East High School baseball player, while hitting balls with his 8-year-old daughter, Araina, at the Bat A Ball Batting Range, 1425 N. 1st Ave. in Melrose Park.
At the time, the Tribune reported that places like Bat A Ball “once dotted the area but are now scarce. Coming upon one now is always a surprise.”
The batting ranges, the Tribune noted, “are dreamy places, where baseballs batted never reach a destination (whether a fielder’s glove or a bleacher seat) but are rather captured by the heavy netting that envelops the nine cages and the contraption that gathers balls and tosses them, at speeds from 35 to 85 miles per hour, toward batters positioned in nine cages.”
By 2021, vines had overtaken the complex, which had also turned into a dumping ground for construction crews. Oak Parker Scott Friesen saw an opportunity in the eyesore.
“The property was unavailable for the better part of a decade,” Friesen said during a recent interview. “The owner died in 2011 without any direct heirs, so it was a court battle for ownership for years. That finally got settled at the end of 2019 and it went on the market last year. My wife called me and said, ‘Hey, that batting cage we drove past for years had a for sale sign on it.’ That’s when the insanity began.”
Friesen, who runs analytics for a logistics company in Chicago by day, is into pinball and baseball and tall, tall tasks. The father of two (his son recently graduated from Oak Park and River Forest High School, where his daughter is currently a sophomore) bought the old Bat A Ball property for about $275,000 and spent at least another roughly $150,000 on fixing the place up. He installed new netting, new roofing on the sectioned cinderblock building that houses concessions, and other operations and new plumbing.
And then there’s the metallic octopus that is the heart of any batting cage, the conveyor system that sorts and shoots balls in nine different lanes and at different speeds.
The hydraulic machine that was in the old Bat A Ball turned out to be a jerry-rigged contraption made of car tires and other found parts, Friesen said. He had to call a company named Automated Batting Cages based in Oregon for the new octopus he had installed. The ABC workers drove up from Georgia only to tell Friesen that they couldn’t start the job, because the steel posts on the rigged contraption were the wrong size. So, he had to frantically search for welders that afternoon.
Friesen and a crew of friends like the electrician Mike Herwitt turned the old batting cages into a construction site. They hauled token machines (still full of tokens) weighing at least 250 pounds. Friesen himself commandeered a 60-foot boom lift to do work on a tall column that hovers over the octopus.
“My wife jokes that I now own nine boats,” Friesen said of the multi-tentacle metal contraption. “There’s always something wrong with a boat.”
About a year and many hours of hard labor later, Friesen officially opened Sam’s Batting Cages, so named after the family’s beloved 13-year-old dog, last month.
Friesen said he wants Sam’s to be a gathering space for the whole family. In an open area near the cages, he installed two raised platforms for people to throw bags and picnic tables for people to congregate.
Inside the building, there’s an arcade machine that plays classics like Pac-Man and Galaga, and a pinball machine.
“This is kind of like my homage to Generation X,” Friesen said.
The walls are festooned with sports posters. Friesen is a native of New York who has also lived in South Dakota (Minnesota Twins territory), so on the wall is team art referencing the Yankees, the Twins, the Cubs and the White Sox.
Sam’s is an amalgamation of rare local craftsmanship. Friesen sells ice cream that comes from the Brown Cow Ice Cream Parlor in Forest Park. He’s been in touch with someone from nearby Westchester who will convert the token machine into a quarter dispenser. He banks at Pan American in Melrose Park. He contracted with Mike Hedges in Oak Park for the paint job.
For those familiar with Bat A Ball and looking to revel in some nostalgia, Friesen sells retro Bat A Ball t-shirts and baseball caps in concessions. The original sign still hovers over the batting cage property, at least for now.
Since its opening last month, Sam’s has attracted people from all over the west suburbs. According to Friesen’s analysis, Sam’s target market includes at least 2,000 registered youth baseball and softball players in suburbs that include Oak Park, River Forest and Forest Park.
On a recent Saturday, Jeff Weiner, 44, visited Sam’s with his son. Weiner said he used to hit balls on the property when it was Bat A Ball.
“I remember this being here and I remember it closing,” said Weiner, who played youth baseball in River Grove. “I’m glad this is open again.”