Monday, December 7, 2009

At former theater, the hits continue

RT Staff Note: Players with a passion for baseball often have a tough time extending their practice and daily regimen beyond October in many parts of the Midwest and Northeast. With the economy still in a downturn, their can be a use for that vacant retail space in your neighborhood. In the DC area, one community converted an old theater. Read on...

Tysons Bullpen, once part of a deserted movie theater in Tysons Corner Center, serves as a sort of community outreach project for the mall. It is used by a nearby high school and Little League teams in McLean, Vienna and Great Falls.

By Kafia A. Hosh
Washington Post Staff Writer

For almost two decades, a deserted basement-level movie theater at Tysons Corner Center has mostly collected dust as a storage facility.

Macerich, the company that owns the mall, didn't know what else to do with former screening rooms with 20-foot-high ceilings and sloping floors designed for auditorium-style seating.

But when Macerich executive Timothy Steffan visited the old theater early last year, he had a revelation: It was the perfect setting for a baseball bullpen, with high ceilings and an elevated floor to accommodate pitching and batting tunnels.

"It made a lot of sense," said Steffan, a former college baseball player. "I said, 'Listen -- we can't make money off it [but] it's a creative way to look at space in order to give back to the community."

The Tysons Bullpen opened in March in part of one of the old auditoriums. It serves as a sort of community outreach project for the mall, which donated the space for use by a nearby high school and Little League teams in McLean, Vienna and Great Falls. Tysons also enlisted the help of local contractors, who donated light fixtures, concrete and recycled rubber mats.

The bullpen consists of three mesh-enclosed tunnels for pitching and batting practice. Bursting with primary colors, it is a place remade entirely for youths. The walls and trash cans are splashed in bright blues and yellows. Even a utility box is disguised with green paint. Gray benches line the back of the room, where parents can sit and watch their kids practice.

McLean Little League coach Rick Lewis uses the facility to strengthen his players' skills during the off-season.

"This is fantastic for wintertime," he said over the clatter of a team practice one evening. "Every space you have like this gives kids an opportunity to work on their game. It's very high-quality."

The bullpen, which the designated schools use at no charge, eases the burden on some parents, who have spent as much as $150 an hour for their children to use other indoor practice facilities.

At the commercial facilities, "it's expensive and the lessons are more individualized," said David Schreiner, father of a 12-year-old McLean Little League player.

George C. Marshall High School in the Falls Church area of Fairfax County plans to use the bullpen when its baseball and softball season begins in February. Marshall is waiting for county to approve its agreement with the mall.

Indoor practice space fills up quickly at the high school, which has one netted cage used mostly for batting. The Tysons bullpen could come in handy in the winter when practice moves indoors, said Joseph Swarm, Marshall's student activities director.

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