Commissioners gave final approval last week for much needed upgrades on the Macon Middle School batting cages. Used by both the Macon Middle School and the Franklin High School baseball teams for batting practice, safety concerns prompted the FHS baseball coach to request the upgrades. While commissioners approved funding for the project last week, the Board of Education first caught wind of the problem at the Jan. 28. school board meeting, when FHS baseball coach Ryan Raby approached the board with the deplorable condition of the cages.
Over the years, the batting cages the school uses have begun to fall apart. In one of the cages, only about 50 percent of the temporary turf is left to cover the concrete and there are few places to hide when a baseball bounces off of one of the poles used to hold up the nets.
Interim Superintendent Dr. Jim Duncan presented the board with pictures of the batting cages in their current state comparing them with pictures of batting cages found on the baseball fields of other schools in the region like Tuscola, Smoky Mountain, and North Henderson High Schools, relying on the images of opposing teams' facilities to illustrate the upgrades that the middle school cages require.
Focusing on the construction of the existing batting cages, Duncan made note that the cages have been built using the existing light poles which pose a threat for anybody in the cages whether they are pitching or hitting. As the poles stand, they are too close to the nets and therefore allow hit balls to bounce randomly, possibly injuring players. To quell this problem in the past, poles were removed, but with time, that has led to the problem of creating too much slack for the netting, placing extra stress on the remaining poles that could eventually cause them to break.
“They are way beyond unsatisfactory,” said Duncan.
According to Raby, the best way to remedy the situation would be to construct new cages that closely resemble the covered cages that the softball teams use. If roof trusses were used, the cage could be hung from them and therefore create space between the net and its support which would reduce the likelihood of a ricochet from occurring. An added benefit of a roof is the additional space it would provide for extra storage to house the field mower or infield machine instead of leaving either one outside to survive the elements of the winter months.
Deteriorating netting is also becoming a problem. As more holes are created and others continue to grow in size, it increases the risk of a player or a spectator being injured.
“At the time it was built, it was built to fill the need and that need has been filled,” said Raby.
Insurance liability is also an important issue to consider, not only for home teams, but for visiting teams as well.
“Having been a coach here, and Middle School principal and having a child who plays there, it’s embarrassing when other schools come here, plus we're taking a chance on one of our teams coming in there and getting hurt,” said Scott Maslin. “That place right there is not only a liability for our athletes, but for anybody that comes in there. We have teams who play throughout the summer. We have Little League teams that come in there to practice. It's a wonder that somebody hasn't been hurt. It's definitely a liability.”
When Raby took over the head coaching job at FHS, most of these problems were already present and as they get worse, he does not want to have to ban the use of the cages. Three school teams share the facility and shutting down the cage would mean that up to 50 students would find it difficult to effectively practice using one field and no batting cages.
“I know and understand the budget constraints the county is under at this time, but I am afraid if someone gets hurt due to us not addressing the issues we have, it could be an even costlier situation,” said Raby. “I think it is my job as the head coach to provide my student athletes, as well as the general public who come to our games and practices, with a safe environment in which to participate and support our teams.”
With the remaining monies from the High School renovation fund coming in at $13,000, the board looked to funding remaining in the capital outlay funds that had not yet been utilized. The board then voted unanimously to fund the renovations of the batting cages at a total cost of $22,000, pending approval by the county commissioners to rearrange funds from the FHS dressing room renovations in the capital outlay school improvement funds. On Feb. 12, the commissioners voted unanimously to allow the transfer and the upgrades will move forward this spring.
This will make possibly two batting cage upgrades taking place before the season begins. During a budget work session, board of education members Stephanie McCall and Jim Breedlove brought up the need for batting cages at the Highlands School. Breedlove did a poll via email and the board unanimously voted to allocate $8,600 from funds remaining from the sale of Cartoogechaye School to help Highlands finish the project. Of the $8,600, $5,500 will be used to complete the batting cages, $1,500 for a storage building because the cages are not on the school's campus, and $1,600 will be used for miscellaneous items such as nets and other equipment. Highlands Coach Jerry Moore raised more than $10,000 on his own to go toward the project. While the board was polled on the matter, they will take an official vote during Monday night's Board of Education meeting.