The contraption's website asks on its front page, "Do you have tunnel vision?" and the answer from Jon Huizinga has always been a hard "Yes."
The pitching tunnel, as it's called, is a setup of four connecting nets that ends in a strike zone filled with nine rectangular targets. In other words, your field of vision is limited to only where you want the ball to go. Even if the ball goes off-center, it's still collected in the back with the ones that went bang-on target. When you're out, you pick them all up yourself and start over again.
Huizinga calls it a 24-hour catcher.
He needed one this summer. Since graduating from Michigan State in 2002, the side-arming right-hander had spent every year in some sort of pro ball or another, except in 2005 when an elbow injury almost wiped out his career. Only one of those 11 seasons was spent in affiliated baseball -- 2003 with Brewers Class A affiliate Beloit; the others came in semi-pro leagues spread across the continent.
But after two seasons with the Sonoran/Peoria Explorers in 2012 and 2013, their Freedom Pro Baseball League canceled its 2014 season, and Huizinga, at 34, was without a pro league. There was a local men's league in Glendale, Arizona. There were local kids he took under his wing as a coach.
And there was the pitching tunnel. Every day, he threw in his backyard with his vision blocked -- except for the strike zone, where he had hoped to make a living for so long.
"A lot of it was just to stay sharp," he said. "For some reason, I always felt like an opportunity could still come my way."
One week ago, it finally did.
Huizinga's first chance in the Minors came 11 years ago. He went undrafted in 2002 after posting a 7.41 ERA in 16 appearances as a senior at Michigan State, and instead of letting that letdown determine his baseball future, he started his professional career with the Kalamazoo Kings of the Frontier League. He made one appearance for the club in 2002 and four more in 2003, when he allowed just one earned run and struck out 10 in 11 1/3 innings before the Brewers came calling.
In June that year, the club signed him to his first Minor League contract and sent him to Class A Beloit, a club brimming with big-time prospects and future Major Leaguers such as Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, Tony Gwynn Jr., Manny Parra and Craig Breslow. He recorded two saves with the Snappers and finished with a 4.32 ERA, 1.66 WHIP, 30 strikeouts and 13 walks in 41 2/3 innings -- numbers he hoped to build on in his second go-round the following season.
It never came. After Huizinga worked his way through his first Spring Training, the Brewers decided there'd be no room for the then-24-year-old right-hander in the bullpens of their lower-level clubs and sent him on his way with words of encouragement. The Michigan native carried those thoughts back with him to Kalamazoo, where he made four more starts before his right elbow blew out in the fourth outing. According to Huizinga, Brewers scouts were in the crowd once again, considering bringing him back.
Doctor after doctor told him that was it for his baseball career, until one admitted maybe there was a chance with rehab. Huizinga moved to Tempe, Arizona, to begin that two-year process and returned to a mound in 2006 with the Calgary Vipers in the Northern League. Despite the injury, his numbers were actually better than ever (3.29 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 9.5 K/9 in 54 2/3 innings), and the Rockies were the ones this time to give him another shot at a career in affiliated baseball. He spent Spring Training with Colorado in 2007 as a 27-year-old and was set to head to the organization's upper levels before a series of falling bullpen dominoes left him on the outside looking in on the roster sheets.
This time there were fewer words of encouragement.
"When I signed with the Rockies in '07, there was a mutual buddy of mine who was a scout, and when I told him I was close to 30, he said, 'Oh, just hang 'em up. Close to 30? Hang 'em up,'" Huizinga said. "And I thought, 'You have no idea who you're saying that to, man.'"
That was the closest he'd get for years as he set on what ended up becoming a barnstorming tour of the North American continent -- the St. Paul Saints of the American Association in 2007; back to Calgary in 2008 and 2009; the Schaumburg (Ill.) Flyers and the Winnipeg Goldeyes of the Northern League in 2009; the Rockford (Ill.) RiverHawks of the Northern League in 2010; and the Yuma (Ariz.) Scorpions and San Angelo (Texas) Colts of the North American League in 2011.
With each passing year, as 30 came and passed in 2010, there were plenty of baseball people telling him that each stop should have been his last, and then there were people who said the exact opposite.
"I get a lot of messages from people saying, 'I hope you're still playing,' because they've believed in me and could see how much this meant," Huizinga said. "Calls, emails, Facebook messages, text messages -- they've all said the same thing: 'Hope you're still doing it.'"
The 18 appearances he made in Yuma, where he led the team in 2011 with 96 2/3 innings pitched, proved to be particularly special. That team had become a pet project of Jose Canseco, who not only managed the squad but also played 64 games with the club along with his twin brother, Ozzie.
But it was another former Major Leaguer that Huizinga remembers particularly fondly. Tony Phillips had spent 18 seasons in the 1980s and 1990s as a utilityman in the Majors with the A's, Tigers, Angels, White Sox, Mets and Blue Jays and was still clinging to a semi-pro career at age 52 when he was teammates with Huizinga in 2011. As a guy who couldn't quite let the game go, Phillips' words held a particular weight with the right-hander.
"Tony was great with me," Huizinga said. "He encouraged me all the time to keep up with this. He even said he thought I could pitch 10 more years, and this was when others said I should have stopped. He was probably just pumping my tires there, but those kinds of things were big for me."
After the Freedom Pro Baseball League failed to come together last year, it seemed like fate had finally decided that those 10 years wouldn't come. Huizinga devoted more time to being a coach -- putting together a website called JonHuizingaPitchingCoach.com -- but still threw with only hope to guide him.
Then, chance took over.
"I was in San Diego a little while ago with one of my buddies who used to be a strength coach with the Twins," Huizinga said. "And we were talking a little bit about [Brewers Minor League assistant pitching coordinator] Mark Dewey, who was a coach of mine in high school [in Grand Rapids, Michigan] and he said, 'Mark's going to be in Arizona trying guys out -- you should call him up.'"
Huizinga followed the instructions and called up his former coach, looking for another shot, hoping to show off his 90-plus mph sinking fastball and a breaking ball that he developed over the years, since he couldn't just throw the fastball by the younger guys anymore.
The tryout lasted 10 pitches.
"He stopped me right there and said, 'I'd loved to sign you, but I can't do that myself. Let me put you in front of some people who can,'" Huizinga said of Dewey.
The person who could was Brewers director of player development Reid Nichols, and the organization's Arizona League pitching coach Steve Cline tagged along to provide his expertise on the session. Huizinga flashed the same stuff to the satisfaction of all involved, and after some consultation, the group turned to the 34-year-old with the question he dreamed would be coming since he left Beloit in 2003.
"They asked, 'Could you go to A-ball?'" Huizinga said. "I didn't have to think about it. I said, 'Absolutely.' I just wanted a chance."
Ten years after an elbow injury almost ended his career and seven years after that failed Spring Training with the Rockies, he passed his physical and signed his third Minor League contract on Aug. 15. He was immediately assigned to Class A Advanced Brevard County, making that the highest level of pro ball at which he's ever played.
"My eyes got pretty big," Huizinga said of the signing. "It was like a tuning fork went off in my heart, telling me this was my chance."
* * *
The deal Huizinga signed only guarantees him a spot for the rest of the season, which constitutes less than a dozen more games and potentially the playoffs. The Manatees sit four games back in the North Division second-half title race but would need to jump Daytona and Tampa to earn Huizinga a chance at the postseason. That's not the point, though.
"The details were never really a big sticking point for me," said the veteran right-hander. "I just wanted to get here and let my pitching do the talking."
On Monday, the Manatees utilized their new weapon for the first time in a relief role. From the time he started to warm up in the bullpen, Huizinga admitted he had to calm himself down with each toss before his debut.
With his first pitch, he'd become the fourth player since 1988 to go at least 11 years between Minor League pitches. Francisco Campoa (1991-2002) and Masao Kida (1988-1999) had also gone 11 seasons, while Denny Tomori went 17 years between appearances in the Pioneer League in 1988 and the Eastern and International Leagues in 2005 with a career in Japan mixed in between.
Huizinga entered in the eighth inning of an 8-0 blowout against Tampa and allowed just a pair of singles. Each was erased by double plays that were induced by his fastball's sinking action out of his low arm slot. That same sinker got Ericson Leonora to ground out to short to seal the club's victory and end his two scoreless innings.
An outing 11 years in the making, by a pitcher with tunnel vision who finally allowed himself to look a little outside the strike zone.
"I'll tell you one thing -- they made me feel like a million bucks when I came off the mound that first time and saw everyone in the dugout," Huizinga said.
"It felt like I was 12 years old again."