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East baseball goes high-tech

By Mike London
mlondon@salisburypost.com
GRANITE QUARRY ó East Rowan’s baseball program has added another potential difference-maker to the roster ó although he won’t be in coach Brian Hightower’s batting order or pitching rotation.
The FM150, a state-of-the-art mechanical marvel known as FungoMan, arrived in Granite Quarry last Wednesday. There were no speeches and no parade, but there could be one for FungoMan ó and the Mustangs ó after the season.
East, 3A runner-up in 2008 with a 29-5 record, has broken new ground by leasing a dazzling device its sellers candidly describe as “high-dollar equipment.” Suggested retail on FungoMan is in the $18,000 neighborhood. That’s a lot of concession-stand hot dogs and Cheerwines.
Asheville-based Ken Bagwell, a FungoMan distributor, says Hightower is on the cutting edge of diamond technology. East is the first school in the Carolinas to take the FungoMan plunge.
Former pro athletes Romy Cucjen and Denny Duron and engineers developed the concept in 2002. The prototype came out in 2004, and it’s been tweaked the past few years.
While it’s new to the area, FungoMan already owns a proven track record. College powers LSU, Georgia, Texas and Arizona State give FungoMan all sorts of props. Eight squads in the big leagues now use the same miracle machine the Mustangs will employ.
What is FungoMan?
It’s an automated baseball practice machine that merges old-fashioned work ethic with modern technology.
Basically, it’s a four-wheeled golf cart that includes a tub to hold balls and a tube that feeds the balls into what resembles a traditional pitching machine. It also possesses a sophisticated computer brain, but testimonials say FungoMan is light, portable and simple enough to operate even a caveman can use it.
What the revolutionary robot is designed to do is make East practices more efficient. FungoMan should make the Mustangs better because coaches Hightower, Brian Hatley and John McNeil can spend hands-on teaching time in the field with players that used to be spent throwing batting practice or hitting those practice grounders and flyballs universally known as fungoes.”FungoMan can be programmed to do anything and everything,” Hightower said. “It frees me up, and it frees up John and Brian. Instead of trying to hit balls, we’ll be coaching fundamentals.”
The key to FungoMan is a ball-feeding system programmed to deliver a baseball as briskly as every three seconds to any spot on the field ó at the desired velocity, angle, spin and elevation. Every ball is consistent and precise.
FungoMan handles 250 balls at a time. At the push of a remote button from as far away as 400 feet, FungoMan can be commanded to rip a drive off a distant fence or sky a popup to the catcher.
FungoMan can be Johnny Bench, zipping strikes to second base for baserunning drills, or the device can be turned into Nolan Ryan, breaking off curves and whizzing 96 mph fastballs. FungoMan can even be converted into Phil Niekro to flutter dancing knuckleballs.
Bunts, rollers, high choppers, dribblers, smashes down the line or toward the hole can routinely be simulated at the push of a buttonó with no mis-hits or mulligans.
“We’re all about hard work and we’re going to work as hard as ever,” Hightower said. “But this is technology. You set up FungoMan. Then you go coach.”
Bagwell demonstrated the robot during East’s fall workouts, and Hightower saw a tool for his program to take a step forward.
“In 20 or 30 minutes, I saw lots of ways FungoMan was going to help us get better,” Hightower said. “Instead of a kid getting 30 groundballs, I could see him getting 50 perfect reps in the same amount of time. The guys loved it, and I loved it. It’s going to mean more practice in the same amount of time, and we can come up with some new drills that will be a lot of fun.”
Hightower plans projects such as raffles and golf tournaments to help defray FungoMan’s expense and hopes the machine’s benefits will transcend the scoreboard.
It’s not unreasonable to assume that better practices and more quality instruction could make the difference in a scholarship offer or two for the Mustangs each year.
Bagwell, who led the ACC in hits in 1972 while playing for China Grove native Bill Wilhelm’s Clemson Tigers, is a true believer. He declares FungoMan “has the ability to change a kid’s life.”
Of course, there’s always at least one comedian in every crowd.
Said a chuckling Hightower: “My dad wants to know if there’s any way we can let FungoMan coach third base.”
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Contact FungoMan distributor Ken Bagwell at 828-319-3909 or ken03@charter.net for information.

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