The Madison Central Jaguars use Madison Sports Zone to practice when the weather turns sour.
The Madison Central Jaguars use Madison Sports Zone to practice when the weather turns sour.
Chris Haley got into select baseball a couple years ago when his oldest got serious about baseball. Like many Madison fathers with kids who love sports, he desired to help his three sons learn as much about the game and dedicate as much time to it as they were willing.

As the coach of his son's travel team, he soon realized the constraints that weather conditions, parents' schedules and field availability place on a team's practice schedule. He bought a 5,000-square-foot warehouse in Canton, and put up batting cages and a pitcher's mound, but the team was still going outside to take infield and field fly balls.

When Beukelaer Cookies in Gluckstadt moved locations from one side of Industrial Drive to the other, it left 70,000 square feet of empty warehouse space, and put an idea in Haley's head. In May of 2012, he opened Madison Sports Zone, a space where coaches and players could work on their skills, whatever their respective sport, regardless of weather or daylight.

"I had been wanting to do something like this for a while," Haley said last week. "But I didn't have the space, until a friend of my father's called me about this space."

Flash forward two years, and Haley has built Sport Zone into a 55,000-square-foot powerhouse, complete with 14 batting cages, a huge turfed room that can be formatted to form a 90-foot baseball diamond or an indoor soccer facility and one outdoor field with a 90-foot diamond.

In the cages, there are six pitching machines, one softball-pitching machine, one small-ball machine and a soft toss machine.

It can be pricey, but not with a membership. Where a half an hour in the cages will cost $25, and an hour $50, a month's membership for a family with one baseball player is $50.

Haley has 12 youth select clubs with team memberships - meaning they can use the facility any time its available - and is the current home of both Madison Central and Germantown baseball when their fields are too wet.

When the tornadoes that ripped through Arkansas, Alabama and Mississippi soaked their field last Monday, Madison Central coach Chad Davis didn't have to worry about how he was going to get his players prepared for Thursday's playoff game against Tupelo; he put them on a bus and brought them to Sports Zone.

"It's a great place for high school kids to get the extra work they might need," Haley said. "People think I started this place for select ball teams, but I always imagined it in my head as more for high school athletes. That's when they start getting serious, and the extra work they need, they aren't going to get it at practice. I don't care if it's Nick Saban out there coaching them, they are going to have to get in that extra time."

And Haley hoped his warehouse is where they would do it.

Baseball fanatics in Madison ought to be glad - some of the county's most famous baseball alumni have come through the building, and prospects of the present and future are using it now.

Among the visitors who use the facility during the winter are Mississippi State great Jeff Brantley, St. Louis Cardinals first-base coach Chris Maloney, Colorado Rockies outfielder Seth Smith and Nationals first baseman Tyler Moore.

Former Ole Miss standout Cody Satterwhite did his rehab from Tommy John Surgery there, and Haley said he expects the Jackson native to get his call from the New York Mets any day now.

Sports Zone has four employees, in the traditional sense of the word. Haley and his wife Lei Ann handle most of the paperwork. His friend Lindolofo Lopez, who Haley said is as good as family, helps maintain the facility and cuts the grass, and he has two other part-timers who come in and work some at night. The list of instructors that contract out of the building for private lessons is as impressive as it is long, with local heroes like Scott Biddle, Brian Rea, Casey Myrick and Jay Hill on retainer.

Sports Zone isn't all about the big kids, though. Haley also owns five inflatables he can break out for children's birthday parties. With a little help, he said has hosted as many as seven in one Saturday during the winter.

It's taken him two years to get the facility and the staff the way he wants it, but Haley isn't done yet. One of the stops on the tour he gave last week was to the site of a future exercise facility, which he hopes coaches and players will one day use for exercise, rehabilitation and weightlifting.

"The other thing I want to do - and this is a big one - is to buy the 10 acres next door and build a couple of fields out there," Haley said. "I've just got the one right now. I finished it in Thanksgiving, and it's my baby."

Madison Sports Zone is open Monday through Thursday from noon to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday from noon to 8 p.m. and Sunday from 1:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.