Today brought the news that a diagnostic imaging company called Universal Medical Systems, with assistance from scientists from The Center for Quantitative Imaging at Penn State, had examined the ball hit by Mark McGwire for his 70th home run in 1998 via a computerized tomography (CT) scan. The scans showed that the ball contained a synthetic rubber ring around the core (or “pill”) not covered by MLB specifications. At a time when McGwire’s Hall of Fame legacy is vigorously debated because he may or may not have used steroids, UMS is charging that the ball was juiced. From the article:
“The synthetic rubber ring of the modern-day baseball, in this case that of Mark McGwire’s prized 70th home run ball, acts as both a spring and a ’stop… Much like a sling shot pulled back 10 or 20 degrees farther than normal, the subsequent restitution or rebound allows an object to fly faster and farther. The changes to the center directly affect the restitution and energy distribution within the ball.”
The news rang a bell, and not just because I’ve spent some time covering McGwire’s case (and yes, my goal is is still to have all the JAWS articles done by the time the Hall of Fame announces this year’s vote next Tuesday). Two winters ago, I wrote a chapter for my colleague Will Carroll’s book, The Juice: The Real Story of Baseball’s Drug Problems. Will had asked me to examine the possibility that steroids could be behind the rise in offensive levels over the previous decade or so, and I gave it my best shot. While noting that the recent scoring levels per se weren’t unprecedented, home run levels were. I examined the way expansion, new ballparks (which were actually getting bigger in terms of fence distances, contrary to the prevailing notion), interleague play, the strike zone, and equipment might have an impact on home run rates.
I found little evidence that any of them could explain such a drastic rise, except when it came to equipment, both the well-publicized changes in bat composition–maple bats, as used by Barry Bonds and others, are slightly more dense then the typical ash bats, but more durable, allowing for thinner barrels and lighter, faster-swinning clubs which maintain the size of the bat’s sweet spot–and the more under-the-radar changes in balls, such as Rawlings’ moving its manufacturing base from Haiti to Costa Rica in the late 1980s, and switching from hand-wound balls to machine-wound ones sometime in the ’90s. Of course much of the evidence supporting those under-the-radar changes is anecdotal and cloaked in an amusing litany of denials from Rawlings and MLB officials that makes for a few good chortles.
Despite MLB’s claims that the ball’s composition and rigorously controlled production process had not changed in years, tests done at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell in 2000–in a study funded by Rawlings and MLB–showed alarming anomalies: a significant percentage of the balls it tested were underweight, internal components within dissected balls were often out of tolerance despite the allegedly thorough inspection process at the plant, and minor-league balls featured a pure cork center (instead of a cushion cork one, which contains ground rubber) and thus didn’t fly as far. The test also showed that two balls within the extremes of official tolerances could differ in flight distance by 49.1 feet despite being struck under the exact same conditions–the strongest evidence I could offer that the balls might be driving the home run surge.
Somewhere in my research, I came across not only the U-Mass Lowell tests but a press release from the Center for Quantitative Imaging via PR Newswire with the same cast of characters, dated 8/24/2000 (emphasis added):
Universal, with assistance from Dr. Avrami S. Grader and Dr. P.M. Halleck from The Center for Quantitative Imaging at Penn State University, studied hundreds of baseballs of various eras dating to the 1930s through the imaging process before concluding that the ball has been changed in order to increase the ball’s flight.
“It’s astonishing to see the changes to the core over the decades,” said Dr. Grader. “It is a completely different ball today.”
After using a CT Scanner specifically designed for core analysis to image baseballs, the team of researchers showed that the cores have changed from cork to a composite material that resembles rubber, causing it to be more lively.
“Surrounding the core is a band made of synthetic rubber that over the years has been altered in thickness while the size of the core has increased which gives the ball additional ‘pop’ or liveliness,” said David Zavagno, president of Universal. “More importantly, this band is not part of Major League manufacturing specifications.”
How about that? Within the U-Mass study is a note about that red ring, which encircles a cork center that has already been wrapped with two layers (one red, one black) of rubber:
The compressed-cork center, black hemispheres and a hard red-rubber washer are hand assembled to make the interior of the pill. The washers are sliced from a hard red-rubber tube, which is also made at this facility… These assemblies are placed like “eggs in an egg carton” on a tray in preparation for the final molding process that will make the complete pill. The red layer of the ball is made in the press and the interior assemblies are dropped into the mold. The entire pill assembly is then molded at high pressure and elevated temperature, resulting in the pill. These pills are then polished to remove the seams.
Pictures accompany the description, but nowhere is it noted that the ring isn’t included in the ball’s official specifications, which themselves are included as an addendum in the report: “The pill of the baseball shall consist of a compressed cork sphere surrounded by one layer of black rubber and one layer of red rubber. The pill shall weigh .85 +/- .05 ounces and shall measure 1.375 +/- .010 inches in diameter.”
Looking back, I have to admit that I may have undersold the the discrepancy between the composition (which I studied rather closely for the purposes of that chapter) and MLB’s specs, as well as the original PR Newswire release. Much of the latter (which I had retrieved here via a subscription to Highbeam) was focused on comparing Maris and Ruth-era balls whose validity was questionable because they weren’t stored in climate controlled conditions, and so none of the information from the release made it into my chapter.
Nonetheless, it’s notable that six years ago at a time when baseball fans, writers and players were clamoring that the ball had been altered, the loudest claim that the ball in play didn’t conform to MLB’s specifications–accompanied by imaging evidence–was scarcely aired. We’ll see if that claim has more impact a second time around, with a marquee name attached.