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Product makes better hitters

Norm Bruce of Central Point created the forerunner of these pitchingmachines as a way to improve the batting of a Little League team he coached30 years ago.

CENTRAL POINT -- Way back in the days when Roger Maris was belting homeruns, Big Mac meant Willie McCovey and Ken Griffey Sr. was a school boy,Norm Bruce coached a Little League team down in Southern California.

Bruce's squad had a problem common to many baseball teams -- it couldn'thit a lick.

Throwing baseballs hour after hour to a dozen or so kids wasn't practical.So Bruce, whose resume included stops at IBM, Collins Radio (maker of aircraftradios) and RCA, started thinking about solutions.

Technology -- albeit primitive -- provided the answer. I got outa little red wagon, a vertical board, a couple motors off drill pressesand then mounted a couple of wheels, Bruce says. I got the ideafrom a table saw, where the pieces of wood go flying off. If you put twowheels together and put a ball in there, it goes flying off.

He was on to something, but it was another five or six years before Bruceperfected his invention enough for mass consumption.

By the mid-1960s, Bruce, his wife, Bettie, and sons John and Paul hadmoved to the Rogue Valley. He built houses in Central Point and a four-plex.But money grew tight by the middle of the decade and Bruce figured it wastime to develop his invention.

In 1966, Granada Pitching Machines -- named for Granada Hills, Calif.,the community where Bruce lived when the concept was born -- became a reality.

The early machines were made out of Medite and were designed merely forbaseball. The durability, efficacy and market were relative unknowns.

From the start, however, the device caught people's imaginations andusers' appreciation.

Even our doctor would stop and field a few balls, Bruce recalls.Of course, he wanted his ups.

After making a half-dozen machines, Bruce realized he was at a crossroads.

I decided we had better want to do this or we could go broke,he says. I never went back to building houses.

Marketing was the next step. Seeing a Granada in action, Don Miller,who was then Crater High School's athletic director, ordered one for theschool and another for his kids. Southern Oregon College soon had one.

But it takes more than a local, statewide or regional market to makeends meet.

Ohio State won the College World Series that year, so Bruce wrote Buckeyecoach Marty Karow a letter espousing the virtues of his machine. AnotherBig Ten coach wrote Bruce, inviting him to the national collegiate baseballcoaches' convention in Houston.

Bobby Winkles, the coach at Arizona State at the time, asked me,`Is this another gimmick or something that can help somebody?'

I told him `It's helped Little Leaguers, but at your level I don'tknow.' Now we know.

Doctoral dissertations providing extensive research have since been writtenabout Granada machines, and testimonials abound.

I sold 18 machines there and that got us into business, Brucesays. Since then he has sold more than 15,000 units. Conventions continueto be key trading posts as he puts his wares on display around the nationsix to eight times each winter.

The early machines were designed for plastic balls, and in 1972 urethaneballs were introduced.

The Granada III is the oldest of the production models and sells for$459. The EZ-Curve, introduced in 1986, went beyond the continual spitfireof fastballs at set speed. it delivers both left- and right-hand curveballsand sells for $659. The Granada V hits speeds of 70 mph and sells for $869.The most popular model is the 390, which throws at speeds up to 65 mph andis priced at $729. Parallel softball models range from $459 to $729. Allare housed in bright orange cases mounted on tripods.

There are no assembly lines. Units are made one at a time. The latest,largest, most sophisticated -- yet most portable -- model received its patentlast month.

Unlike the previous models that use two wheels, the G-2000 uses threewheels operated by three motors that deliver baseballs, urethane balls orplastic polyballs. The key component in the three- wheeler is an inhibitorallowing motors to go on and off without burning up. As a result, what thenewest invention does is randomly throw in a change-up or curveball alongwith fastballs.

It is mounted on a dolly-like frame with four wheels and is raised andlowered with the aid of gas springs.

I was going to call it something like Delta or Tri, but my grandkidscame up with the name G-2000, Bruce says.

Hitters, who relied on a machine's consistent timing and placement tomake contact in batting practice, have to pay closer attention.

While the present-day Big Mac -- Mark McGwire -- and Ken Griffey Jr.toiled vainly to overtake Maris' majestic total of 61 home runs in a season,Bruce's labors have been far more fruitful.

The original red wagon-based pitching device has long since been laidto rest at the South Stage Landfill. But its offspring continue the task.

Bruce was recently included in the 1997-98 edition of Who's Who in Executivesand Business.

Bruce's office is filled with testimonials from clients reporting theextra cuts in the batting cage against Granada machines turning many a weakbatter into clutch hitters.

The bottom line is not to make machines, says Bruce, butto make better hitters.

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Product makes better hitters