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Are juiced balls the culprit in homer binge?

By Kris AxtmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 17, 2000

Baseballs are flying out of major league stadiums like never before - and the exodus is causing more speculation than the ingredients in a ballpark frank.

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Last month, a record 931 balls were sent into the stands. At this pace, fans will see 700 more home runs than last year, and everyone from bleacher bums to baseball columnists has a theory: better batters, worse pitchers, more teams, smaller parks.

But lately, it seems, many are asking whether it could all be in the ball.

Conspiracy theorists, long skeptical of the steady rise in balls leaving the yard, have sprouted like crab grass. Somewhere in the leather, wool, and cork, they say, lies the answer to the power surge: The league's been juicing balls to fill stadiums.

League officials say all the baseball-bashing is bunk, but the speculation has raised the question of how much can really be done to a ball to change its performance. As a result, two studies - one sponsored by the league itself and one independent - hope to answer one of the game's most nagging questions once and for all.

For its study, the league will turn to Jim Sherwood, an engineer at the Baseball Research Center at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell. He will put balls from the Rawlings factory in Costa Rica through several tests.

Do what you want, says Rawlings, there will be no surprises.

"The baseball has been made exactly the same way since 1968," says Ted Sizemore, a senior official at Rawlings. "There is no difference."

Under current league regulations, balls are tested twice by the manufacturer before reaching the field. The ball is fired against an ash or steel plate at 60 m.p.h. and rebound velocity is measured.

But some believe the tests themselves are faulty, leaving room for conspiracy theories.

"You can design a ball that can pass that test quite easily. But at game speeds of 120, 140 m.p.h., a ball can behave quite differently," says Kevin Gilman, chief engineer at the Lansmont Corp. in Monterey, Calif.

His company, which usually tests commercial products, is in the middle of an independent study of league baseballs. Curiosity, says Mr. Gilman, is what prompted the study.

"We wanted to find out if the balls are indeed juiced. It's certainly possible," he says. "There is a fair amount of craftsmanship involved in making the baseball."

A ball could be changed by winding the fabric at different tensions or using different materials in the center, or pill.

"If you're of the suspicious nature, you can assume that [the league] might change the tension on purpose," he says. "But who knows? It might not be a plot at all; it might be accidental. Machines only have so much ability to control things like that."

The Lansmont study should be complete in a couple weeks, but until then, Gilman won't reveal any secrets.

Others say the league's relatively low testing velocity isn't significant. Measurements vary only slightly at higher speeds, says Robert Adair, a professor emeritus of physics at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., and author of "The Physics of Baseball."