Are juiced balls the culprit in homer binge?

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.

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."

He spent years studying the issue, and says the balls are the same as they always were. Even if the league wanted to tamper with the baseball, it would be no easy task.

"It's very difficult to make a ball that's more lively and not get caught," says Mr. Adair.

How would he do it? Place the balls in a 200-degree oven all night long. About an hour before game time, take them out. The covers will be cool, but the insides still warm.

"You'd have some livelier balls then," chuckles Adair. "But I can't see Mr. Sosa or Mr. McGwire sneaking in and putting the balls into an oven before the game."

Batters have done plenty to help themselves without changing the baseball. Fans fill the stadiums to see the long ball, and players are happy to oblige. They spend more time in the weight rooms bulking up.

"In every sport, the athlete is much bigger and stronger," says Mr. Sizemore, who played major league ball for 12 years before going to Rawlings. "In basketball, guards are now 6 ft., 6 in. In football, the linemen are all well over 300 pounds. And in baseball, the hitter is much bigger and stronger. They have developed at a much quicker rate than the pitchers have."

That has made for a more offensive game. But things weren't always so. Ball players were smaller and strategy was much more a part of baseball before World War II. The game had its humble beginnings in town meadows and fields. Fences were only brought in as a way to charge spectators, and even then they were well out of any reasonable field of play. Strategy was king.

"The subtleties of the game - the hit-and-run, the stealing, and the sacrifice - were a larger part of the game before the power hitters took over," Adair says.

The changes began when a "crazy kid, a wonderful pitcher named Babe Ruth, started swinging from the heels and hitting the ball over the fence," Adair says.

Many believe the fans have changed as well. It used to be kids grew up playing nothing but baseball. Now, they are just as likely to be shooting hoops. That has made for lack of understanding of baseball strategy. It's the spectacle that matters now.

"We don't have a lot of people complaining about the way the game is being played," says Pat Courtney, a Major League Baseball spokesman. He says the UMass study is being done to "reassure" the public that the balls aren't juiced. It should be finished before the season is over.

Building a baseball

* A cushioned cork sphere is covered by two layers of rubber. This is known as the pill. The pill is wrapped in three layers of woolen yarn. A fourth layer of cotton yarn is then added with an adhesive coating, which holds the two pieces of figure-eight shaped cowhide leather that are sewn on. After testing, it's ready to fly.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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