Originally created 05/24/00

MLB: It's not the ball



TURRIALBA, Costa Rica -- With home runs and juiced-ball claims on the rise, it was a perfect time for a field trip to a baseball factory.

A day after a record six grand slams and 56 home runs were hit in the majors, a van full of baseball executives showed up at the Rawlings factory Monday for a previously scheduled look at how big league baseballs are made.

Their conclusion: It's not the balls' fault.

"We came away very impressed with the operations here," Sandy Alderson, the majors' executive vice president for operations, said after a 2'-hour tour of the plant where all major and minor league baseballs are made. "We weren't looking for surprises, it was an educational process."

With Rawlings balls flying out of major league parks at a record-setting pace, Alderson said he took a tour of the unassuming, about 900-employee factory in Costa Rica's coffee-growing region to "get more familiar with what goes into making a baseball."

"It's not enough for us to tell the media and the fans that there's nothing wrong with the ball," said Alderson, who was careful not to say the word "juiced."

"We need to be more familiar with the process ourselves," he said.

There were 931 home runs in the majors in April, a record for the month and up 15 percent over April 1999.

On Sunday, along with the record six slams, there were 56 home runs -- one off the record for a day, set on April 7.

Alderson said he thought stronger hitters, smaller ballparks and a pitching talent pool thinned somewhat by expansion all contributed to 2000's homer-happy season.

He left the tour believing that the balls hand-stitched in this factory some 46 miles southeast of San Jose could somehow be altered to become more hittable. But he added he did not think that was happening.

"I'm not a physicist," Alderson said. "But I think you could look at each component of how the ball is made and realize there could be ways to make slight changes."

"I am now confident there is no difference in the balls being made here now and those being made here at the start of last season," he said.

Alderson joined Rawlings executive vice president and former infielder Ted Sizemore, players union representative and former pitcher Steve Rogers and two other executives from the commissioner's office, Jimmie Lee Solomon and Ray Krasik, on the tour.

Also along for Monday's tour of the factory, which sounds like a giant washing machine from the outside, was Larry Fallon, who is associated with University of Massachusetts at Lowell engineers who are currently studying the balls to make sure they meet the specifications in the rule book.

From Costa Rica, baseball's global inspecting team will head to the St. Louis-based Rawlings facilities in suburban Missouri, where balls are tested after making the trip from this working-class town of about 20,000 to the United States.

Alderson said that with attendance up 6 percent this season, no one in baseball is necessarily complaining about the overabundance of homers.

"There's a tension between the historical integrity of the game and the entertainment factor and interest level that exists today," he said. "We need to try to devise a balance between those two things and knowing as much we can about the process will help us to do that."

Alderson said one possible option baseball might try to slow the barrage of offense would be to raise the pitching mound from 10 to 16 inches.

"It's a good possibility we could do that," he said.

After the 1968 season, in which 1-0 pitchers' duels became the norm, baseball lowered the mound to shake pitcher's dominance on the game.

And did Monday's group feel a little strange heading down to Costa Rica to check on the baseball factory mere hours after all the grand slams in the majors?

"No, because any day we came down here there could have been some ironic offense record set the day before," Alderson said. "Those weren't bad baseballs, those were bad pitches."