Pitching Machine

Words by Harlan Ambrose

Pictures by Tilly Hutchison

Published on November 22, 2013

For our new series we’ve invited people to share stories of their childhood artefacts. First up, Harlan Ambrose tells us about the pitching machine his dad built.

Tilly _hutch _harlan _ambrose

My father is shorter than I am, about 5’10”, and muscled the same way I imagine an old sailor to be muscled. The kind of sailor who used his hands, never spoke much, and died thinking about what he’d do the next day. I imagine my father’s tendons are strapped tighter to the bone than most men, and his muscles are strapped tighter to the tendons than any man, because while he is not an imposing outline, he is the strongest man I know.

When I was younger we used to gym together: we completed the same exercises, only I took off around a third of the weight he lifted, and completed fewer reps. My father was never verbal about his strength, but there were occasions where he would see someone in the gym who was, in his words, a show off.

A show off was someone who made a big fuss about all the weight they were doing. Someone who pranced the entire circuit of the gym after each set, pausing only to ensure the blood in his arms was still flowing. My father would break off from our routine, wait until the show off was finished with a bench or a machine, then double the weight and complete the same exercise, making sure the show off could see the smaller man lifting the weight with ease.

Gym was a complement to a shared passion of ours: baseball. My father, never happy with the status quo, researched advanced training techniques for strengthening the throwing arm, improving stamina, and quickening swings.

At the top of our sloped backyard, he welded a frame, then dug it into the ground for stability, and on that frame he fixed a small trampoline. The sort of trampoline you might see a basketball mascot jump on as they fly toward the hoop. The trampoline sat at roughly a 45-degree angle, so that when my father threw a weighted ball at the centre of the mat, the ball bounced back up into his hand, strengthening his shoulder. Like all of my father’s creations it functioned exactly as it was meant to, but any thought of aesthetics never entered my father’s head. It looked like a post-apocalyptic trap, like something the father in The Road might build.

Twice weekly my father and I would stand at the top of the hill, the Brisbane city skyline in the distance, the red sun trailing away, and we would take turns throwing this yellow, five-pound ball then catch it when the trampoline flung it back. On same afternoons when my father was running late he would stand in his work clothes—black slacks and a tie-less office shirt—and throw until his back was damp.

When I started to show signs of being a hitter rather than a pitcher he adjusted his training approach. Beneath our house in the low-roofed garage, he hung up netting, cleared enough space to swing a bat and got to work making his own pitching machine. After a few failed attempts and many adjustments he built a machine that stood on three legs like an old camera. Two wheels, each lined with a rubber track spun viciously at the front of the machine. Behind them was a narrow tube where he fed the balls so they rolled down into the teeth of the wheels. The tube wasn’t wide enough for baseballs or the whiffle equivalent (a plastic baseball lined with holes that darted in the air like a manic bird), but instead shot out whiffle golf balls. In the Dominican Republic, children play in the street using broom sticks for bats and bottle caps for balls. Some scouts theorised that this increased difficulty (a narrower bat and a smaller projectile) helped develop their outstanding hand-eye coordination. And so along with the whiffle-golf balls that turned every way when they flew, my father built a club-like stick, the end of which he wrapped in soldering wire and sealed with tape. The effect was a thin yet weighted stick that felt like someone was holding the tip back whenever you swung.

The pitching machine was pincered into the dirt at the end of the garage and it fired downhill toward the victim. For the first few shots my father said to stand back while he adjusted the angles. The balls whipped out in all directions and pelted the back net. After a few followed a consistent, safer path, he said to stand in a take a few swings. The first ball flicked the end of my nose. The second zipped almost a metre behind me, and the third was a perfect strike right down the middle.

‘Why didn’t you swing?’ my father said, his silver hair poking out from behind the machine. Then he laughed and fed another ball.

Eventually I began to make contact, and the machine became another part of our routine. My father was always pushing though, wanting to train every spare moment, or wanting me to prove I worked when he wasn’t around. I was taking so many rounds I started to find the plastic golf balls everywhere: in my clothes, in my shoes, pouring out of my school bag.

There was also a wild element to the training. Even when the balls would behave for five or six pitches in a row, there was the potential that one would come out at just the wrong angle and flick my face, or ribs, or calf. The impact didn’t leave deep bruising, but superficial marks that rose red on the skin like stings.

I gave up baseball at fifteen. I had my first girlfriend, but training two nights a week with the club, then other nights with my father, and games that took up half of the weekend were too much. I spoke to my mother first in preparation, hoping she might reassure me. She just winced slightly and said only if I was sure. He was sitting on the couch, head bowed in work. He took the news the same way he takes most things, considering it silently, letting the unwelcome thought squeeze in through his pores.

In the days and weeks afterward I heard him come home from work, change, and march up the backyard hill alone. I’d hear the thud-thud-thud of the weighted ball as it bounced back into his hand. Every weekday he’d be up there, training, getting stronger.

When I went under the house to fetch him tools I saw the pitching machine looking out, waiting like a statue I’d once seen move. Gradually it gathered dust, parts of it were used in other projects, and only the stand remained. Gradually my father softened his stance on my commitment to baseball too.

My father still plays. He throws harder at fifty-years old than any other player on the team, most of whom are aged between seventeen and forty. We talk about how his games are going and we talk about a lot of other things. There’s a diversity to our communication now that wasn’t present when our sole focus was training and baseball. More than that I’m free of the sting of that machine. The whistle of the balls right before the impact. But still today, in the boot of my car, in the back of my cupboard, or in old baseball hats, there are plastic golf balls gathered in groups, cheering a successful war.

Words by Harlan Ambrose.
Illustration by Tilly Hutchison.