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Slugging It Out at Saigon’s Baseball Cage

For much of my adult life, in the months from February to October, my mood was dictated by the results of New York Mets games. 

Over time, and realizing that I'd pledged allegiance to a team that would be marred by the legacy of the Bernie Madoff scandal, to compound its general disfunction, I just learned to love the game. When we visited District 7's Baseball Cage in early March, I was having an existential crisis. In the United States, MLB (Major League Baseball) team owners had locked out players months earlier in a protracted and nasty labor dispute, unable to come to an agreement on a new contract.

So while the players union was fighting for cost of living increases as rapacious owners were pulling in record profits while simultaneously crying poor (this saga came to a temporary end on March 10), Saigoneer decided to enjoy a drama-free afternoon casually sipping beers and taking cuts at low-speed “baseballs.”

While baseball is slowly becoming more popular in Vietnam, it is intense, requiring equipment, large open fields, dedication and skill — things that none of us have. Instead, we were breaking baseball down into its simplest, most basic form — hitting a round ball with a round bat. To my knowledge, this is the first batting cage in Vietnam, and therefore warrants something of an introduction.

Batting cages were invented sometime in the 19th century, not long after the game of baseball itself was created. The sport has roots in older bat-and-ball games played in Europe, versions of which were brought to the United States by immigrants. By the 1830s, early forms of baseball were being played across North America, with the first officially recorded game taking place in Ontario, Canada on June 4, 1838.

America's first baseball game occurred on June 19, 1846 in Hoboken, New Jersey. The sport caught on quickly, and in just a decade, New York-area newspapers were calling it the "national pastime," a title that now stands in serious doubt given the wild popularity of football and basketball in the US.

Baseball also spread widely over the decades, with professional leagues and avid fan bases across North America, parts of Central and South America, the Caribbean and East Asian nations like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. 

But back to the batting cage, which started to take its modern form in Southern California in the 1970s. The concept is simple: a machine launches a ball at a set speed, and the batter waits in a space surrounded by netting to keep balls from being blasted all over the place. 

And unlike early batting cages, these set-ups are automatic: balls return to the machines thanks to a sloped floor, meaning the entire process is done without needing any humans out there. 

But, it turns out that even at this primordial level, baseball is no walk in the park. Mercifully, the Baseball Cage offers four different ball speeds (and softer rubber balls than conventional baseballs), with the fastest clocking in at a modest 100 km/h, far slower than the 150 km/h-plus speeds hitters typically face in the majors. However, we, like the others casually whiling away our Saturday, were not hitters.

Some fared better than others at making hard contact — or in the case of this writer, any consistent contact whatsoever — but the crowd of mostly young folks seemed to enjoy America’s pastime despite probably never having watched a single pitch before.

The beer hall setup and aesthetic that features plenty of baseball regalia leans into the baseball vibes with framed images, South Korean jerseys and bats hung on the walls, and a big-screen TV replaying old World Series games. The environment provides plenty of respite between sessions that last only three minutes, enough for 30-or-so pitches. The pitching machines take tokens which one can buy from a waitress for various prices from VND17,000 to 38,000 per round depending on weekday/weekend and quantity bought.

Beers were affordable and varied, with many of the local and some international craft/imported beers available in bottles, with the old standby Sapporo pouring on draught.

While these batting cages offer a very watered-down version of the sport, you will likely face some muscle soreness for a few days, so I guess technically we can count this as some form of exercise. All in all, this was more of a trip to a baseball-themed beer hall than some of the batting cages I've been to in the States, but it's probably a better fit for a city where few have ever put bat to ball.  

Baseball Cage is located at 479 Lê Văn Lương, District 7.

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