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FENWAY

And behind this curtain . . . Jeter?

By Peter DeMarco
Globe Correspondent / March 29, 2009
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The operators of Fenway Park's "Game On!" sports bar knew they had a hit on their hands - a batting cage inside the bar for patrons to take their cuts - long before the first pitch was thrown. The cage, after all, was the official visiting team's batting cage. What fan wouldn't want to step up to the same plate that Yankees Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez do?

Better still, on game days, it was announced, bar patrons would be able to watch visiting players take batting practice through a huge, 13-foot-long, 10-foot-high glass window looking onto an indoor cage inside Fenway underneath the stands - a treat no other major league ballpark had ever offered.

The batting cage, which opened for rental at the start of the 2008 season, has attracted everything from bachelor parties to a 50th wedding anniversary to the West End House Boys and Girls Club of Allston, said Mike Brucklier, the bar's director of operations. At a cost of just $5 a person - reservations are required - it might be Fenway's most fun bargain yet.

But despite the initial announcement, if you wanted to see major leaguers smack away in the cage, you'd be out of luck.

On game days, a giant curtain is drawn across the entire window, blocking the view. With the curtain closed, you wouldn't know that the cage even exists, save for an occasionally loud crack of the bat on the other side.

The Red Sox, in deference to visiting teams, decided to close all batting practice sessions to the public last year, Brucklier said. The same policy will be in place when the 2009 home season begins April 6.

"It's just kind of been a logistical issue," Brucklier said, noting that the cage is primarily used during inclement weather and by players who want extra hitting. "We roughly hold 600 people here. You have athletes who are very locked into what they're doing. We, as an establishment, would never want to bother them. It's something we're still hoping we will do, but it's something we would only do in the future."

Sox fans who walk just a few steps down Lansdowne Street to Fenway Park's other bar, the Bleacher Bar, can look out another giant glass window onto center field both before and during games. (The Lyons Group runs both bars.) Before games, the window is opened so that fans can hear and even talk to ballplayers as they shag fly balls. Occasionally, players will even sign autographs or hand balls to fans through the wire fence.

The Chicago White Sox, meanwhile, have a glass window inside their ballpark bar that looks directly onto the visiting team bullpen. When pitchers warm up, they're virtually eye-level with patrons.

Those kind of intimate experiences aren't possible at Game On!'s batting cage, at least not yet, said the Red Sox. Like Brucklier, team spokeswoman Susan Goodenow said the Sox would like to offer batting practice viewing but are hindered by "the unusual nature of the situation."

Indeed, players inside the cage are concentrating on hitting baseballs at speeds of 80 miles per hour or more. And whereas bullpen pitchers are used to verbal harangues from the crowd - at Fenway, there's no glass to muffle the loudest hometown barbs - hitters are never situated that close to fans. Pick your major league ballpark, and you'll find 50 or even 100 feet of foul territory between home plate and the stands.

Of course, that is exactly what was so alluring about Game On!'s glass window in the first place. What fan has ever stood just 5 feet from a major league hitter as he swings? Close enough to see a player's eyes lock onto the ball.

Whether tinted glass or some other idea could resurrect the concept remains to be seen. In the meantime, the batting cage is fulfilling its other role, giving fans the chance to pick up a bat and hit at Fenway.

On a recent Sunday night, a group of MIT staffers and their friends filed into the bar, buying beers and appetizers as they leisurely took turns in the cage. The first batter, Hans Kalkofen, of Cambridge, stepped in and swatted a pitch right back at the bar employee assigned to feed the pitching machine. A net screen was all that saved him from getting plunked.

"The game is to hit the pitcher!" Kalkofen bellowed with pride.

The staffer sighed.

"That's the game everyone seems to play," he said, firing up the next pitch.

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