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Sunday, Sep. 2, 2012
Doctoring the baseball a tactic as old as the game itself
This column is about "the ball," but it is not what you think.
It is not another rehash of the Japanese baseball being changed in 2011, resulting in fewer home runs and lower batting and earned run averages. Rather, it is about the ball in general and how its use has changed dramatically in Japan and the major leagues.
Flash back 50 years or so. For every major league game, 60 balls were prepared. Five dozen baseballs were rubbed up with a special mud from the Delaware River and readied for service during the MLB contests. Today, about twice as many balls are used in Japanese games.
Old-timers will remember when, after the third out was made to end an inning, the fielder who made the last putout would roll the ball to the pitcher's mound where the opposing team's pitcher would pick it up and use it the following inning.
These days, a new ball is put into play every time the teams change sides after three outs.
It used to be too, when a mid-inning pitching change was made, the departing hurler would wait on the mound, game ball in hand, until the reliever arrived, and would hand the ball to the new guy to throw to the next hitter.
Now, the plate umpire flips a new ball to the pitching coach on his way to the hill to remove the pitcher. The old ball gets rolled to the ball boy and is not used again.
Next time you watch a Japanese or MLB game on TV or at the stadium, see what happens every time a pitch hits the dirt.
The catcher will hold up the ball, so the umpire will pull out a new one from his pouch and make an exchange-every time.
Is there some rule about which we don't know?
In the old days, pitchers wanted to use a scuffed baseball or one with a dirt or grass stain-anything to make the ball move a little more or distract the batter, but not now. These days, it seems, the hurlers prefer a new ball.
Former Hanshin Tigers lefty Tsuyoshi Shimoyanagi asked for a fresh baseball after every batter, whether or not he got him out.
A PR spokesman for one of the Japanese teams estimates about 120 balls are used per game these days from among the 70 dozen — that's 840 — on the supply shelf.
They come right out of the box too; no river mud on them. Instead, they are wrapped in aluminum foil, pieces of which sometimes stick to the balls after the foil is removed.
"I've had umpires throw me balls with foil stuck in the seams," said Hanshin Tigers pitcher Randy Messenger.
Yomiuri Giants hurler D.J. Houlton says he has seen that too and just throws the ball as it is, with the tin.
In bygone days, though, there was often more than just a small piece of silver on some balls.
A well-documented story about the former New York Yankees great left-hander Whitey Ford tells how he not only used a scuffed ball to his advantage, but also had the ball deliberately bruised by his battery-mate, Elston Howard.
After catching a pitch, Howard, still in the squatting position, would get ready to throw the ball back to Ford but pretend to lose his balance. He would then steady himself by putting his right hand on the ground —with the ball still in it.
He would discreetly grind the ball into the dirt which had been moistened by the ground crew hosing down the infield.
When Ford got the ball back from Howard, it would have a dab of dirt on it, and the clever Whitey knew how to make the ball dance on the next delivery.
Another former major league lefty, Dick Egan, is currently a scout for the Detroit Tigers and was in Tokyo last week. Asked if he preferred to use a scuffed ball when he was active in the 1960s, he answered, "Absolutely," and went on to talk about his 1966 teammate with the California Angels, Lew Burdette.
Burdette, the hero of the 1957 World Series when he beat the Yankees three times for the Milwaukee Braves, had his system for preparing and throwing what amounted to a mud ball.
Listen to Egan's explanation:
"Lew used to go the mound each inning with a mouthful of water. He would then spit out the water on the back of the mound and put the rosin bag next to the little puddle he made. Then every time he would bend down for some rosin, he would pick up a speck of wet dirt from his puddle and put it on the ball.
"One day we played catch, and he showed me how he made the ball dart in the direction opposite the side where he placed the dirt."
It seems, over the decades, cheating in baseball has gone from pitchers doctoring baseballs to players using performance-enhancing drugs.
Cheating aside, though, there should be nothing wrong with pitchers using a ball that merely hit the ground once or twice, even if it is slightly scuffed or stained.
Another former MLB moundsman, one-time Los Angeles Dodgers 20-game winner and All-Star Bill Singer, is currently a scout with the Washington Nationals. In Japan last month, Singer was asked how we got from the point of pitchers preferring to use a scuffed ball to the opposite habit of not wanting to throw balls with a slight imperfection.
"I don't know," he said, agreeing pitchers of his era knew using a scuffer was to their advantage. For sure, there have been many, many changes in the game of baseball over the past four or five decades, but the use of the ball itself is one of the most intriguing.
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Contact Wayne Graczyk at Wayne@JapanBall.com