JUICED? Live-ball theories conspire to create lively controversy

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Toronto Blue Jays rookie Carlos Delgado started all this, though he probably didn't know it at the time. His Hard Rock home run on Opening Day at SkyDome was the first sign that something might not be quite right with the baseball.

Earlier that day, somebody named Tuffy Rhodes had hit three straight homers in Chicago, but the wind was blowing out and it was Wrigley Field, so it didn't raise many eyebrows.

It was Delgado who made people wonder. His first major-league home run traveled about 450 feet and scared the Molsons right out of the Cuppies (Canadian urban professionals) who crowd the trendy Hard Rock Cafe high above right field.

It happened again the next night. He hit one that nearly shattered Windows, the upscale restaurant that hangs over the center-field bleachers. By the end of the week, he was tied for the major-league lead in home runs with eight and his Herculean performance was leading to speculation that somebody had been messing with the ball.

"How do I do it?" Delgado asked. "Don't ask me how I do it. I don't know."

Nobody knew, but a lot of people were getting suspicious. Delgado was not the only player with seemingly superhuman power. New York Mets second baseman Jeff Kent -- coincidentally, another product of the Toronto Blue Jays' minor-league system -- was taking the National League by storm. Neither is a household name, but both are challenging the major-league record for home runs in April (11).

Then Tim Raines hit three home runs in a game, as did Cory Snyder, and the Atlanta Braves hit back-to-back-to-back home runs twice in four days. Could it all be a coincidence, or is the ball wound a little tighter?

"It's something that we're looking into," said acting commissioner Bud Selig. "I've asked the manufacturer and they say there is no difference in the ball. I guess we have to take their word for that. We're going to continue to investigate, but we've found no evidence that there has been any change in the manufacture of the ball."

The cumulative home run and scoring statistics in the first three weeks haven't done anything to quiet the controversy. Home runs are up 50 percent in the American League and 40 percent in the National League over the same period last year. Overall offensive production has risen about 15 percent in each league.

"Everybody has a theory," Selig said. "I was at a local function with [Brewers catcher] Brian Harper the other day, and his theory is that players are just bigger and stronger.

"Some say it's expansion and the dilution of the pitching. Some say players are bigger and stronger. The pitchers say that it's a lively ball. I guess the most logical answer is, all of the above."

The ball is the easiest target, as it was when similar statistical aberrations appeared in 1987. Most of the other possible factors -- and there are many -- would not explain such a dramatic upswing in offense, but a combination of them might.

"I think today's athlete is bigger, stronger and more well-conditioned," said Kent, who at week's end led the National League in RBIs (23) and home runs (eight). "I think guys are better, more fine-tuned and continuing to improve. People can say what they want about the rawhide that we're hitting, but the ball still has the name of the old league president on it, so I don't think it's the ball."

Players are bigger than they once were. It seems as if everyone engages in some sort of off-season weight training, which was almost unheard of as recently as the late 1970s. There also have been changes in the hitting environment -- new, homer-friendly parks in Baltimore, Chicago, Texas and Cleveland, and thinner air at Mile High Stadium in Denver. They even made it easier to clear the fences at Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego and removed the Plexiglas fence extensions in the outfield at the already quite cozy Metrodome.

There is even room in this controversy for conspiracy buffs, who suggest that baseball ownership has adopted a livelier baseball to improve television ratings, since revenues from the game's new network contract are directly linked to the size of the audience.

"That gives us a lot of credit for being able to plan our business in a very careful and minute way," Selig said. "It's pure nonsense."

The most popular argument against the live ball is the effect of expansion on the overall quality of pitching in the major leagues. The addition of two new teams would figure to dilute pitching talent, but if that were the major factor, why didn't this happen last year?

"It's all hype," Kent said. "People want to make something out of nothing. They make money talking about it and writing about it. There are a lot of explanations. Bats are different now -- more weight-balanced than they used to be. And maybe it's just me, but I haven't seen a lot of new faces on the mound lately. Maybe players are getting more familiar with the pitchers."

The hitters generally look to other explanations. The pitchers, predictably, believe that the new baseballs -- like many of the hitters -- are just wound too tight.

"Some of the things I've read, I don't agree with," said veteran pitcher Tom Candiotti. "They say that expansion has watered down the pitching and that's the reason guys are giving up home runs. I don't agree with that, except maybe to a small extent. There are some pretty good pitchers out there who are giving up a lot of home runs. I've seen some home runs hit that had no business going out of the ballpark."

Candiotti was sure that the ball was juiced in 1987, and the average offensive output is significantly higher this year than that year. There were 2.1 home runs hit per American League game through the first three weeks of 1987. The average this year is 2.6 -- a 25 percent difference. The difference in total runs scored is equally dramatic.

"You would think that it's the ball, but I think it's too early to tell," said Mets pitcher Dwight Gooden. "In '87, I thought it was, and now the pace is even more so than '87. I think it was then, so you'd have to believe it is this year, but the players are bigger and more aggressive and they are getting good swings. Sometimes, you have to give them some credit."

The most prevalent theory in 1987 was that the ball was sewn tighter than in previous years, though officials from Rawlings -- who now manufacture the ball in Costa Rica -- insisted then and insist now that the manufacturing process has not been changed.

"We're using the exact same ball," said Rawlings executive M. Scott Smith. "None of the materials or manufacturing process has changed, or will.

"Every ball is weighed and measured up to 20 times before it is stamped a major-league ball. It's sent to a laboratory prior to distribution, and balls are taken at random and tested. "They are computer wound and tested at each stage of four windings. The only human element is that they are hand-sewn."

In 1987, California Angels first baseman Wally Joyner hit 34 home runs in his second full season in the big leagues. He had hit 22 the year before, but he was considered more of a line-drive hitter than a big power guy. Montreal Expos third baseman Tim Wallach turned in a career performance that year, too, but took offense recently when former Expos manager Buck Rodgers credited Wallach's success in '87 (and the rich contract he signed the next year) to the allegedly juiced baseball.

Wallach, now with the Dodgers, said he doesn't know whether the ball was altered that year, but he points out that his performance should not be discounted, since everyone else was using the same ball.

"The idea [that the ball was juiced] didn't offend me," Wallach said. "It only offends me that I was singled out. It was not a fair assessment because it was not the only good year I've had. To me, the question I have is when guys who don't normally hit home runs start to hit them. The guys who hit home runs, if they hit a ball well, it's going to go. You've still got to hit the ball."

This year's controversy has been driven by the quantity and the quality of the home runs that have been hit in the early weeks of the season.

"I don't know if they are doing anything to the ball," Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tom Lasorda said, "but I'll say one thing, they [the home runs] are getting to places in the ballpark where I've never seen them get to before."

The early season home run frenzy prompted ESPN to do a special report on the allegedly "live" ball last week, but the rapid-fire video montage the network televised during Tuesday's baseball highlights showed player after player taking big cuts at seemingly fat pitches.

"I don't know about the ball being juiced," said Mets manager Dallas Green. "I'm more worried about pitching. We're training an era of pitchers who don't want to throw the baseball . . . who don't build arm strength or command . . . who give into the hitters too much.

"They've gone a long way to prepare hitters to hit better. There are indoor batting cages. There are warm-up cages where guys can get ready to pinch hit. There's a whole program for hitting. Where's the program for pitching? Every time you bring up something new about pitching, there's a doctor or trainer saying you can't do that."

Blue Jays general manager Pat Gillick takes the decline in pitching argument one step further, focusing on the effect of expansion on middle-relief pitching quality.

"Middle relief is like the [World Wrestling Federation] now, where you can just drag a guy into the corner and beat the heck out of him," said Gillick. "I've heard all about the juiced-up ball, but it's just a lack of pitching depth brought on by expansion."

There are many opinions but little real evidence to support any of them. But Dodgers bullpen coach Mark Cresse has reason to be skeptical of the juiced-ball theory.

"I don't think it's the balls," Cresse said. "In St. Louis, I was using the same bag of batting practice balls I used last year, and Wallach and [Raul] Mondesi both hit balls off the KMOX [AM radio station] sign at Busch Stadium in the same BP session. I'd never seen anyone do that even once before."

Of course, the struggling Dodgers could be expected to fall on the other side of this particular issue.

"If it is juiced," Lasorda said, "they must be using the old balls when we play."

JUICED BALL II

Is the baseball juiced this season? Three players already have hit three home runs in a game; seven of the 14 American League teams have ERAs above 5.00 and nine of the 14 National League team ERAs are above 4.00. Here's a comparison of the first three weeks this season with last season and the juiced-ball season of 1987. Average per game in parentheses.

.. .. Year .. .. G .. .. HRs .. .. .. .. Runs

AL .. 1987 .. .. 127 ... 264 (2.1) .. .. 1,205 (9.5)

.. .. 1993 .. .. 119 ... 204 (1.7) .. .. 1,177 (9.9)

.. .. 1994 .. .. 103 ... 260 (2.5) .. .. 1,173 (11.4)

NL .. 1987 .. .. 107 ... 199 (1.9) .. .. 918 (8.6)

.. .. 1993 .. .. 125 ... 189 (1.5) .. .. 1,045 (8.4)

.. .. 1994 .. .. 109 ... 218 (2.0) .. .. 1,029 (9.4)

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