Soft practice ball is one reason Athletics are so tough in the field


One of the secrets for the Oakland Athletics' domination of the American League for the past three years has been uncovered.

It's IncrediBall.

This soft, spongy ball that resembles a regulation major-league baseball in appearance and circumference (nine inches) but is lighter (3 1/2 ounces compared with 5 ounces) has helped make Oakland's 1990 Cy Young Award winner Bob Welch and Rick Honeycutt better fielding pitchers.

IncrediBall also has helped A's catchers improve their ability to block low balls in the dirt.

IncrediBall, which was invented by Bob Morgan in Santa Cruz, Calif., in 1981, has played a prominent role in every Oakland spring-training camp the past five years.

"We call it 'dodgeball in the desert,' and we do it every day in spring training," said A's pitching coach Dave Duncan earlier this season. "We line up our pitchers 40 feet from guys with fungo bats. We have the pitchers go into their delivery, and, on the follow-through, we hit the ball as hard as we can at them. It helps their reflexes and trains their eyes to pick up the ball much quicker, because they have only 40 feet to react compared to the normal distance [60 feet, 6 inches] from home plate to the pitcher's mound."

Duncan, a former catcher for the Baltimore Orioles, said all his pitchers react the same way the first time they are asked to participate in the drills.

"They think it's crazy," said Duncan. "But, after a while, they realize the value. The fielding of all our pitchers has really improved. It's just another aspect of the game that can help you win."

Duncan said the team's catchers are more willing to work on blocking low pitches with IncrediBall than the harder regulation baseball, because "they don't come away with their hands and arms all bruised and beaten up."

Duncan advocates using IncrediBall in youth baseball games for players 6-12.

"If my son is batting off a kid who is a foot taller and throwing the heck out of the ball, I would feel a lot more comfortable if they were using a ball that would only sting him if he got hit," said Duncan. "The purpose of youth baseball is to teach the fundamentals and have fun. If you learn the fundamentals right, you won't get hurt when you start using the hard ball."

Duncan said it is almost impossible for youngsters to learn all the fundamentals of fielding a baseball when that ball is a regulation one.

"The idea is to keep the ball in front of you, your head down and your glove down," he said. "But, with a natural fear of a baseball, the head will come up most of the time when a kid fields the ball. The biggest thing a kid has to do in hitting or fielding is to overcome the fear of the ball."

However, Duncan said it will take a long time before youth baseball programs around the country use IncrediBall in games, especially the 9-12 age groups.

"It's going to take someone actually doing it and getting good results," he said. "I've seen the results and believe in the ball. If I didn't, I wouldn't be talking about it."

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