The creation of the Magic Tee was something that came from a 20-second conversation Ryan and I had walking out of the gym together. He had recently been playing with his kids using a sports themed toy that would “hang” a felt-covered wiffle ball from a plastic Velcro-covered hook. As he watched them swing he realized that instead of trying to hit the ball “up and off” as they would from a conventional tee they were swinging more down and through as he wanted them to do. The beauty of it was that to them it was totally intuitive. They didn’t have to think about why it worked better – it just did – and Ryan could then help them focus on improving their swing instead of just avoiding clubbing the tee.
For Ryan, his years of experience in playing, hitting, and coaching helped him easily understand that an easy-to-see hanging ball was helpful in teaching his kids a cleaner, easier, and more natural swing path. In a nutshell, it was just obvious to him that it was a good thing.
That “Magical Conversation”
So what was the magical 20-second conversation we had? Ryan jokingly mentioned to me wanting a way to accomplish the same hanging feature as did the toy, but for a real baseball or softball. From what he described it would need to be able to do the following:
- Hang a heavy porous ball of different levels of slickness, new, old, dirty, heavy, etc.
- Have a tiny contact patch so that the entire ball was easily visible
As a mechanical engineer it seemed obvious to me that a source of suction was the method required to satisfy all of the requirements. It was the best way to overcome gravity and the porous ball surface while still touching as little of the ball as possible.
Creating the Magic
I created a crude testing-setup to evaluate my theory by using a shop-vac with a taped-down hose end to make the hose end small, turned the vacuum on, and hung it all from an engine hoist so that the hose end was hanging down at just the right height to hit a hanging ball from. My goal was to get the ball to hang with just enough vacuum to overcome gravity, so that when the ball was hit it would release and fly like a pitched-baseball would and yet not adversely effected by too much suction. It took a few tries to get the orifice the right size, but once I thought it was acceptable I asked Ryan to do a few test hits from it. It only took one to realize we were on the right track. He blessed the idea as sound and that did what he wanted it to do. I think we celebrated with beers.
From there we commissioned our fabricator friend Aaron Tjaden to create several functional tee prototypes that utilized a foot vacuum pump so you didn’t have to plug it into an electrical outlet, providing the ability to take the tee anywhere.
Then we had kids start using the tee at local practice sessions, and using it, and using it some more. Over a number of months our prototype tees had over 1000 swings on them. That testing allowed us to see the wrinkles in the design, fine tune the vacuum system (we've now added an electric pump because smaller kids had trouble with the manual foot pump), and figure out where the tee was most likely to break or wear down over time.
The Magic Emerges
We were both a little surprised at the results of testing. We expected the tees to get clobbered and destroyed by kids swinging too high and hitting the top of the tee, knocking it over, etc., but it never happened. The more we tested, the more we kept getting the same results: with the ball hanging from our tee, they would almost NEVER swing too high! They would usually take a couple of swings that were too low (and wiff), and then their spatial reasoning would kick in and at they would start making clean contact – just like magic.
The go-to-production design has come as a result of all of the development, testing, and fine tuning from the past, all fueled by our desire to create a hitting tool that teaches a proper swing and is easy-to-use, attractive, and fun for both players and coaches!