During the Gary SouthShore RailCats' inaugural season in 2002, the players spent an estimated 200 hours on buses—traveling approximately 12,000 miles without their own ballpark to call home. Indeed, the diamond at U.S. Steel Yard was still under construction, forcing the team to play its entire first season on the road. But while the trip could have been a rocky way for an organization to start out, it instead forecasted a wild ride ahead in which the RailCats never stopped moving. After just four years, the RailCats captured their first Northern League title, marking the first of five straight appearances in the championship series—a Northern League record.
Despite that first year away from home, the RailCats seem to have settled in well at U.S. Steel Yard. Within the park, views of the South Shore commuter train remind fans of the team's origins, and a 55-foot scoreboard towers over left-centerfield in much the same way early pitchers once towered over batters from atop a stack of milk crates.
Unlike an outdoor field, The Perfect Swing's more than 60,000 sq. ft. facility isn't ever affected by bad weather or movie crews shooting yet another inspiring comeback story. The sound of cracking bats and thudding balls fills the training space rain or shine year-round. Baseball and softball players face off against seven automatic pitching machines, which hurl balls at speeds between 35–70 miles per hour, while pitchers work their arms in 17 practice tunnels.
The Perfect Swing also offers four indoor turf fields for year-round baseball, softball, and soccer. Shoppers who are looking to stock up on softball and baseball equipment can visit the on-site store.
Athletes aren't left to swing and throw blindly, though. The Perfect Swing boasts a staff of more than 25 baseball and softball instructors, including many current and former professional players. During private and group instruction, these experts help students hone fundamental skills in areas such as hitting, pitching, catching, fielding, and agility. Instructors also lead outdoor baseball camps during the summer months.
The ThunderBolts' swift pitches and powerful swings have twice led them to being crowned champions of the Frontier League—a set of a dozen independent pro baseball teams. This season, right-handed hurler Dustin Williams has led the 'Bolts pitching staff and fanned 29 batters over 24.1 innings in his first four starts. Meanwhile, catcher Zach Aakhus has been chasing the league’s slugging title with a .365 average through 18 games and an industrial-strength butterfly net. Groupon holders may choose from more than 30 remaining home games in 2011, catching more flies than a bullfrog dipped in honey from their upper- and lower-deck seats.
As the weather warms in Chicago, north-siders will scramble to seats inside historic Wrigley Field, with all the throwback charm of its 1914 construction. But those living south of the River do it a bit differently—they head to the sleek and modern U.S. Cellular Field, affectionately dubbed The Cell. Replacing the Sox’s old home at 35th and Shields, The Cell—formerly known as “the new” Comiskey Park—opened in 1991 to give fans more than 40,000 unobstructed views of the field, the players, and the huge exploding scoreboard. Day and night, colorful fireworks shoot from the centerfield board before every game and after every homerun and win. As no game would be complete without classic ballpark food, a variety of concessions sell such staples as hot dogs and pretzels, as well as more gourmet treats, including steak sandwiches and brownie sundaes. Before or during the game, young fans can head to the 15,000 square-foot Comcast Fundamentals area, where the White Sox Training Academy coaches teach kids the ins and outs of baseball on a youth-sized wiffle-ball diamond and inside batting and pitching cages.
Outside, snow falls, wind rattles leaf-less branches, and winter blankets the landscape. Then the crack of the bat rings out. That sound of summer is available all year long at Stella's, which offers heated indoor batting cages in the winter and open-air outdoor cages in the summer. An onsite bats and gloves shop outfits players with stacks of Easton and Wilson A2000 mitts and Louisville Slugger and DeMarini bats.
As the sight of pop flies and line drives keep summer always within reach, so too do the aromas of Vienna hot dogs, bratwursts, and burgers wafting through the air. Stella's restaurant also provides ball players and their families with homemade Italian ice and soft-serve ice cream. To celebrate turning another year older or finally getting zombie Babe Ruth on the team, Stella's offers party packages that include good eats, game tokens, and batting cages.