SKOWHEGAN — Jesse LaCasse is hitting baseballs with wooden bats he makes himself on site.

He’s batting in space where the dance floor and banquet room used to be upstairs in his grandmother’s restaurant on Madison Avenue and where his great grandfather once sold clothing in a department store years before that.

He’s also pitching the Skowhegan location, calling his new business River Run Batting Cage for the proposed Run of River whitewater park that is planned through the Kennebec River gorge just beyond his south-side windows.

LaCasse, 36, a Madison Area High School baseball star who went on to play ball for St. Joseph’s College in Standish and tried out for the majors, opened the batting cage and workout center Feb. 18. It’s a spot for boys and girls and men and women to get in their licks while the snow is still on the ground and all summer long if they like.

The baseball center is in the former Village Candlelight Restaurant at 4 Madison Ave. His grandmother, Florence Sterns, ran the place until it closed in 1993. A number of other businesses — a golf shop, a bar and grill and a teen chem-free club — have occupied the space over recent years.

LaCasse’s great grandfather, Frederick Sterns, opened Sterns Department Store in the same building in 1929.

Now it’s his turn at bat.

“I find it very interesting because I have so many people that come in and say, ‘Oh, I remember this is where the women’s clothing store was’ and where my bat store is. They say, ‘This was the shoe shop,'” LaCasse said. “This whole upstairs where the batting cage is now was four sections of clothing, but that was before my time. It’s still known by people as the Village Candlelight that was run by my grandmother, and there’s still a generation that’s still calling it the Sterns Department Store.”

Jesse LaCasse stands in his workshop where he manufactures baseball bats on Water Street in Skowhegan on Thursday. Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

LaCasse said he has turned the brick building at the corner of Water Street into a three-level bat-making and sales and baseball training facility.

He’s keeping it in the family for the love of the game.

“There’s no doubt that my great grandfather, grandfather and grandmother would be proud to see what has come of the place,” he said, noting that his grandfather, Dick Sterns, a Skowhegan attorney, was his Little League coach and a huge baseball fan.

LaCasse makes baseball bats out of raw hardwood on a lathe in the basement of the building. He sell the bats and other items in a shop and office at the front of the building opposite Bloomfield’s Cafe. His brother, Mark, and his wife, Kelly, run The Maine Meal, makers of frozen gourmet meals, all locally sourced and cooked on site in a commercial kitchen in another part of the building.

The top floor is now the batting cage, featuring Iron Mike, a pitching machine that uses real baseballs in a 70-foot, screened-in batting cage. A machine for softball will be added later this month.

There are hitting stations with two tees for practice and soft toss. Equipment includes an exercise bike, medicine balls with a rebounder for strength and conditioning, stretch bands for pitchers and hitters and drills for agility and skill.

Iron Mike, the pitching machine, was a big hit with some of the kids who visited the batting cage on a recent visit.

Gage Morgan, 14, of Skowhegan, takes his cuts in the batting cage installed in the upstairs of the LaCasse Bats building on Water Street in Skowhegan on Thursday. Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

Gage Morgan, 14, of Norridgewock, a member of the Skowhegan Area Middle School baseball team, said Iron Mike, unlike other pitching machines, recreates live pitching.

“It’s pretty cool,” he said before taking some swings in the cage. “Iron Mike is more realistic than most pitching machines. The release point is more like a real pitcher and it doesn’t pitch right down the same part of the strike zone every time. It pitches around it too. It’s more realistic.”

Gage said having a baseball training facility close to home helps get players ready for spring training. It might even give them an edge come mid-April, he said.

“Everyone else will be just starting and I’m going to be right in my groove,” he said.

Volunteer dad and baseball coach Scott Mitchell, principal at Madison Elementary School, on hand with some boys for practice on a recent afternoon, said LaCasse’s facility is just what the area needs.

“It’s incredible. We live in Maine. These kids love baseball. They’d play year-round if they could,” Mitchell said. “Here’s now an opportunity where they can get swings in, get a lot of pre-season work in right here. We’re excited about this.”

Mitchell was with his son, George Scott Mitchell, 11, who plays Cal Ripken Baseball. The youngster said he was getting ready to take his first swings of the season.

“It’s cool. Iron Mike’s pretty cool,” he said. “It will help me with my timing, maybe make me stronger and to hit the ball farther.”

Ben Morgan, 12, and Quintcey McCray, 11, both Cal Ripken players, said they are impressed with the place and are big fans of the pitching machine.

“It’s really cool because of Iron Mike,” Quintcey said. “It doesn’t just throw strikes. It’s realistic. You have to read the pitch.”

LaCasse said he was sold on Iron Mike the first time he saw it and made it the centerpiece of his baseball training facility.

George Mitchell, 11, collects baseballs for another hitting session in the batting cage installed in the upstairs of the LaCasse Bats building on Water Street in Skowhegan on Thursday. Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

“It’s the popular pitching machine. The kids love it. I love it myself,” he said with the cracks of the bats echoing in the background. “It’s an arm style, a realistic type of pitch. It throws fastballs, and because it throws real baseballs, it’s a realistic at bat. You have to lay off some because they’re balls, but 80 percent are strikes coming off the machine.”

Iron Mike can pitch baseballs up to 85 mph and as slow as 35 mph. The machine is operated on a timer for left-handed and right-handed hitters. One minute gets you 10 pitches, and unlike a coin-operated pitching machine, the batter doesn’t have to swing at every pitch, LaCasse said.

There also is a station for live pitching with a 9 1/2-inch pitching mound for pitcher training and live at-bats. There also is a mat for live softball pitching with 10 dozen new softballs on hand. The softball machine will throw up to 70 mph and throws fastballs, risers and drop-balls by adjusting the machine, LaCasse said.

The cost for the batting cage is $40 per hour for up to five batters and $25 for a half-hour for up to three batters. There also are monthly memberships for individuals and families.

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]

Twitter:@Doug_Harlow

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