Upton, N.Y. — A WOODEN bat propped against the bookshelves and the cutaway diagrams on the blackboard send clear signals that Robert Adair has more than subatomic particles on his mind. When not wrapped up in his work as associate director for high energy and nuclear physics at Brookhaven National Laboratory here, the jovial scientist can be found probing the properties of corked bats or waxing eloquent on the shady practice of pitching scuffed baseballs.
His interest is more than academic: Earlier this year, National League president A. Bartlett Giamatti appointed him physicist to the National League.
Dr. Adair tries to keep his role in perspective. He observes, ``About the only places where physics intersects with baseball are in batting and throwing. Those are about the only areas in which a physicist can supply a modest amount of information.''
A modest amount of information indeed. Without batting and throwing, the national pastime would be national nap time.
To be sure, physicists and baseball are no strangers. Scientists and engineers have spent years studying baseballs and bats and developing theories about why curveballs curve or why knuckle balls give batters fits.
Some of these issues surfaced again this season in highly publicized cases of players using illegally altered bats and pitchers tossing baseballs they'd taken a bit of emery board to.
The problem, says Dr. Giamatti, is that not all physicists agree on the extent to which altered baseballs and bats affect the game. Hence his decision to look for outside help.
``My interest is in what he makes of previous work,'' says the league president in explaining his rationale for tapping Adair.
He says that such information could help him and his colleagues determine if rules - such as those covering the fabrication of bats and balls - are adequate or need to be changed.
``I'm not sure that baseball has taken advantage of all that is known about it,'' he concludes. ``Besides, my impulse is to make appointments,'' says the former Yale University president, acknowledging that he's also appointed someone as economist to the league. ``I'm not paying these guys anything.''
Which is OK by Adair, who points out that he and Giamatti have been friends for about 15 years, and anyway, he's having ``great fun'' taking on the tasks Giamatti tosses his way.
Which turns Adair to the topic of corked bats and their effect on the game.
``Let's say that player Smith isn't hitting very well,'' he begins, ``and he drills a hole into the end of his bat, puts cork in there, and then caps it up. What he has is a somewhat lighter bat. Maybe he can then swing the bat a little quicker if he's having trouble catching up with a fastball. Maybe he can hit the fastball and he feels - correctly - that the bat has done him a lot of good.''
The irony, says Adair, is that Smith could have gained the same effect by switching to a lighter legal bat ``or by simply choking up three-quarters of an inch on a regular bat.''
Though corking doesn't seem to offer advantages that can't be gained legally, he says, ``I'm fairly confident it's possible to modify a bat illegally such as to gain advantages.''
``To my mind it's important that baseball penalize this cheating,'' he says.
As for pitchers scarring baseballs, ``My conclusion is just what everybody knows anyway, that baseball better keep track of people who try to cut holes in the cover.''
With your garden variety overhand fastball, he continues, the aerodynamic effect of the stitches along a ball's seam is symmetrical: There's no extra force to the left or right.
``Now let's say I scuff up a ball on one side. Then there's going to be a differential force to the left or to the right,'' he explains. ``If I throw a straight overhand fastball, then the ball will likely drift away from the scarred side'' a couple of inches.
Given the 60-foot path from the pitcher to the batter, that drift won't make much difference if the pitch is a waist-high overhand fastball, he says. ``But let's say I throw three-quarters. Then it's going to be one inch over and one inch down, roughly. The difference between hitting a home run, a pop fly, and a weak grounder is just a fraction of an inch. So I'm quite happy to believe that people can get interesting effects which are unpleasant to the batter by scuffing a ball.''
Adair says his tastes in sports are fairly eclectic. ``When I was a kid I used to enjoy playing basketball, though I never did it very well. I was possibly slightly less inept at basketball than some of the other sports.... When I was a small boy I used to go off with my grandfather in Fort Wayne, Ind., and watch the semipros and the Triple I league and things like that.''
What he doesn't allude to is his knowledge of baseball. ``He's an extremely knowledgeable baseball fan,'' Giamatti says. That comes out as Adair launches into a brief discourse on the bats and batting techniques of some of the greats in baseball.
``Bats have changed a lot since our grandfathers' day. They used to use hickory wagon tongues. Babe Ruth is supposed to have used a 56-ounce hickory bat in the beginning of his career when he hit around 40 home runs. And I understand that when he hit 60 home runs he was using a 47-ounce hickory bat. Now the average player uses a bat that's about 32 ounces and made of ash. And that changes the game somewhat.
``Babe Ruth was probably one of the first of the extreme sluggers,'' he continues. ``Not only did he hold the bat at the end, he held it beyond the end. He batted left handed of course. He put the knob of the bat in the palm of his right hand. So he was holding a bat an inch or so beyond the bat, and of course swinging very freely. Earlier, Hall of Fame people like Ty Cobb actually held their hands separated on the bat so they swept through the ball more. That gives you a little more precision in hitting the ball between infielders and between outfielders. But by and large you don't hit the ball quite as far as if you swing it like a pendulum, like Babe Ruth did.''
When asked about the changes he's seen over the years that have affected the game, he points to today's higher pitcher's mound and the like.
``But the big change, to my mind, is in the size and strength and training of the players. I go back to old World Series scorecards I have and look at the vital statistics of the players. You had an awful lot of fellows 5-foot-9, 158 pounds. And nowadays? I would make an offhand guess that between 1935 and 1985 the average player gained 15 or 20 pounds. Moreover they train, they have these Nautilus machines. There's a lot more known about physical conditioning.''
Those factors have been cited by many sports commentators for the nearly 20 percent increase in home runs hit this season.
Indeed, despite the technical nature of Adair's role with the league, his respect for the players shows through.
``If major-league players listened to me lecture on the character of a bat, and they really listened, they'd drop 15 points in their batting average,'' he says with a laugh. ``These are intelligent people and they know what they're doing, by and large. But it's not an intellectual process, it's not a technical thing. It's an athletic game, and that's where the skill lies. Not in deep understanding of the character of bats.''