This robot's name is FungoMan and he just wants to play baseball with the Padres
For the past five years, "FungoMan" has collected dust and cobwebs in the back corner of the Padres' covered batting cage at their Spring Training facility.
But this spring, the automated machine that directs fly balls to outfielders has finally seen the light of day -- and so, too, have the Padres, who are raving about the machine.
The "FungoMan," which resembles a pitching machine on wheels, has been used during the first few weeks of camp to spin balls of varying direction and distance to outfielders, replacing the job once done by coaches with a fungo bat.
Don't feel bad for the coaches, though.
"It takes out the human error when you're doing specific outfield drills," said San Diego bench coach Dave Roberts, who works with the team's outfielders. "You can maximize the players' time. Trying to hit the ball 330 feet consistently is tough for anyone.
"With the 'FungoMan,' the ball flight is consistent -- we're giving them balls right at them, shoestring catches, balls in the gap, to the line, even pop-ups to the infielders. Having this just makes sense."
This machine is set up at home plate on a practice field and is run by Roberts with a hand-held device that can be programmed to repetitively shoot balls to specific distances, replicating a ball off the bat.
"The reception we're getting from players has been great," Roberts said.
No more so than from new outfielder Matt Kemp, who is largely responsible for getting the machine out of mothballs.
While working out at San Diego State University recently, Kemp saw that the baseball team was utilizing the machine, one he was familiar with when he was with the Dodgers.
"I don't think people really understand how hard it is to hit consistent fly balls with a real fungo," Kemp said. "I have [had] some good coaches, like Davey Lopes, who were good at it. But I'm sure if Davey saw the 'FungoMan,' he would want to use it instead of hitting fungos all day, so when I found out the Padres had one, I was like, 'I want to use that thing.'"
Romy Cucjen, president of "FungoMan," which is based in Shreveport, La., is actually from San Diego. He played at Bonita High and later at Southwestern College before going to Arizona State to play shortstop. He played five seasons in the Minor Leagues. Cucjen founded the company in 2003 and took it to market in 2007 along with co-inventor, Denny Duron.
In 2008, Cucjen sold a machine to the Padres, one of five teams in Arizona who have a "FungoMan" at their Spring Training facility.
Cucjen came to Peoria earlier this month to reprogram and update the machine and to put the coaches through a one-hour tutorial on the hand-held part of the device. The Padres and "FungoMan" have been up and running ever since.
"I had never seen anything that before," said Padres outfielder Jake Goebbert. "It a very unique machine. I'm glad we're using it."