BOSTON — It's a question that tickles the fancy of just about any baseball fan, especially around World Series time: How fast can I pitch that ball?
Everyone knows what the major-leaguers can do. When the Florida Marlins take on the Cleveland Indians tonight, radar guns will instantly show fastballs whizzing at 90 miles per hour and up. But for those of us without access to that technology, the question remains unanswered.
Until next spring.
That's when Rawlings Sporting Goods begins selling the Radar Ball.
Thanks to a switch, a chip, and a little display, the ball will tell you how much smoke you've really got. At $35 to $40, the Radar Ball is a little pricey, but it's far less than the several hundred dollars or more that college and professional teams pay for radar technology.
The secret to the Rawlings ball is something called an inertial switch. It's a simple gizmo that detects when the pitch is started and when it's caught by the catcher. It registers movement in much the same way as passengers in an accelerating car. When the car suddenly moves forward, they're pushed back in their seat. When it brakes, they lurch forward.
Knowing when the Radar Ball starts and stops, all the computer chip has to do is calculate the time and, assuming a fixed distance from pitcher to catcher, convert it into speed, which it displays on a penny-sized display.
"We've been making baseballs over 100 years, but we've never done something like this," says Scott Smith, marketing manager for baseball and softball products at St. Louis-based Rawlings.
The company, which supplies the major leagues, is looking at incorporating the technology in softballs and other sporting goods.
Stuffing similar electronics and switches into balls might sound a little gimmicky, but it's actually a logical step from other uses of the technology. Inertial switches have been used to tell bombs to explode and cockpit recorders that a plane has crashed. They're the sensors that airbags use to detect a car crash. If you pop the lid of your trunk and the light goes on, one of those switches is at work.
As the price of electronics has fallen, the idea of stuffing a computer chip into a hockey puck or a golf ball is no longer outlandish. Companies and inventors are hard at work on such applications.
The Radar Ball has its limitations. It has to be thrown a specific distance to calculate the speed accurately. Rawlings will be selling versions of the ball to be thrown 60 feet, 6 inches (the distance from the pitcher's mound to home plate in the major leagues) as well as a model for 46 feet (for the youth league markets).
Another drawback: It can't be used during a game. While able to take the punishment of pitching and catching, the ball shouldn't be hit with a bat. The electronics aren't that robust.
So World Series pitchers probably will be timed with radar guns for a long time to come. Although Rawlings field-tested its Radar ball with three pro teams and expects to sell them in the major leagues, its bigger market will probably be consumers, competitors say.
"It's going to be fun. It's inexpensive. I'm sure there will be high school coaches out there buying it," says R.J. Sahr, vice president of sales for Radar Sales Inc., the Minneapolis manufacturer that supplies most major-league teams with radar guns. But "you certainly aren't going to use [it] ... to decide whether to pay a pitcher $5 million or $10 million."
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