Is it a controversy if the home run balls were juiced? According to several sources at the All-Star Game this weekend, baseball used balls that were both smaller and harder than normal. One source who was on the field during the contest said that the balls had been heated, a fact I heard repeated on the HD feed of tonight’s Red Sox-Yankees game. It’s an exhibition, so I’m hardly going to say this is any real scandal, but I think if true, the results of the Derby certainly point to the balls as a more serious problem in real baseball than anyone short of Jay Jaffe believed. (Jay, in his chapter in The Juice, made a great case for the balls having more of an effect than steroids during the Steroid Era.) Where I’m bothered is that in a sport where everyone from the Commissioner on down speaks about the integrity of the game, they may not have shown much concern for altering a fundamental part of that game without informing the fans.

We’ll also see how baseball deals with Victor Conte’s plea bargain. As predicted, he’ll be back selling his creams and elixirs in less than a year. Expect the remaining three defendants to fall in line quickly, saving baseball (and other sports) from a trial they were openly dreading. Just to be clear, Conte will go to jail for distributing steroids for less than one-sixth of the suggested penalty in several of Congress’ anti-steroid laws.

Powered by the most something something of any something that’s ever been, on to the injuries:

  • If it bleeds, it leads. That old saw fits Curt Schilling in a number of ways. There’s the Holy Sock and now the bloodletting in his first outing as short reliever. ESPN went to massive, slow motion close-ups of Schilling’s repaired ankle several times during the game and it looked stable, if a bit stiff. It looked to be thickly and stiffly taped. While most were focused on the ankle, I saw that Schilling’s hips were very slow, not even reaching “square” (parallel to home plate) at his release. The fact is that 75% of Schilling, as Rick Sutcliffe rated him, is not enough to get out two of the most elite hitters in the game. Gary Sheffield and Alex Rodriguez proved that amply tonight. Still, Schilling showed that he had something to offer. He’s a better closer than Mike Timlin, who’s in the bottom ten of the inherited runs scored chart and if he can continue to vary his pitch selection to compensate for the reduced fastball, Schilling has a chance to contribute. With his extended warm up–he started tossing in the sixth–Schilling still seems like someone better suited for a ‘tandem starter’ setup, perhaps pairing him with someone else who’d be better served with shorter outings like Wade Miller.
  • The implosion of Yankees pitching continues unabated, despite the nearly unprecedented move of bringing in next year’s pitching coach–at least, I assume that’s what Joe Kerrigan is doing watching video this season–at the halfway point. The latest flight from JFK to Birmingham will have Chien-Ming Wang on it, MRI’s of his injured shoulder in hand. While details are not yet available, team sources tell us that Wang is expected to be done for the season, facing surgery that could put much of 2006 in question as well. The Yanks now trump the Braves, with four of their top six pitchers on the DL. Even if Randy Johnson hasn’t been as dominant as the Yanks hoped, he’s been available. The team is now hoping that the return of Kevin Brown works as at least a stopgap. Brown has had a couple good throwing sessions without negative effect on his cranky back. They’ll need it since Carl Pavano is at least two weeks away from a return.
  • Nick Johnson is a slow healer. That’s hardly breaking news. What’s different this time is that he’s had such a run of good health accompanied by good hitting that it feels even more disappointing. Johnson’s heel bruise is now being treated as if it were a fracture. Weight bearing is extremely painful for Johnson, pushing his return back to the dreaded “indefinite,” which in this case means it will be revisited early next week before re-setting the rehab program. The trade for Preston Wilson and his Coors-inflated power was pushed in large part by the questions the team has about Johnson.
  • While the Orioles fade and focus on Rafael Palmeiro‘s quest for 3000 (is he really “stuck” on 2999 as ESPN said? It’s been a day …), they are doing it on the slow road to having a full team. Javier Lopez was expected to be just days away from returning from a hand injury. Instead, he’s likely to need at least two more weeks before putting the gear back on. There’s a small chance that he’ll be hitting before catching, though hand injuries can be stressed more by the forces of hitting. The Orioles have been very aggressive with rehab targets this season and this is one that appears to have been a bit optimistic. Aggressive is not the word for the timetable on Jason Grimsley. People seldom aren’t healed this fast without having Joao de Deus involved somehow. Grimsley is back in the bullpen less than nine months after Tommy John surgery. It still doesn’t make the Denny Bautista trade any better of a idea.
  • The image of Nomar Garciaparra laying in the batter’s box, screaming and clutching his torn groin is burned in the minds of baseball fans everywhere, especially the men. That he’s now about to start playing in games seems amazing. Garciaparra has been doing the proverbial “baseball activities” for a couple weeks now and is expected to start playing in extended spring training games, followed by a short stint in Iowa. (Isn’t mid-July a seriously long extension for “spring training?”) The big worry is that Garciaparra will be gunshy of making quick, explosive moves after surgery and rehab. It’s hard to tell what to expect from Garciaparra at this stage. Will the Cubs get the Garciaparra they believed they were trading for, the one that was adequate but unspectacular at the end of 2004, the elite player they saw this spring, or the guy who batted .157 the first two weeks of the 2005 campaign? Your guess is as good as mine on this one and PECOTA didn’t have this groin injury in its brain either.
  • While Chipper Jones continues to work in his rehab assignment, Tim Hudson and Mike Hampton will be this weekend’s starter for the Braves. Both had good sessions in the bullpen with Leo Mazzone keeping a close eye on each. Neither had problems of any sort during the light throwing. Hampton, the Sunday starter, will throw again as part of Mazzone’s “throw more, pitch less” program. Jones, in low-A because of the various league All-Star games and geography, has had only slight pain while running. Reports that he’ll come off the DL this weekend seem optimistic, with the middle of next week the more likely return date. The power will be the last thing to come, if you assume that the speed isn’t coming back anyway.
  • I keep waiting for someone like Joe Morgan to say that pitchers didn’t have flexor masses back in his day. Of course, it just seems that way. Much like oblique strains, the strained or torn flexor mass in the forearm is something that’s more a new term than a new injury. Precision helps in sports medicine and it’s impossible to know how many injuries like this have been described as elbow or forearm strains. For Troy Percival, his flexor mass strain is a recurrent, now chronic problem that will likely plague the rest of his career. He’ll head to the DL for now while Kyle Farnsworth is likely to get the closer role in his expected minimum-time absence.
  • Quick Cuts: Rich Harden throws a complete game two-hitter and I notice that he only went 81 pitches. I need a hobby … Jason Neighborgall made his debut in short-season Missoula. Until he corrects his small mechanical flaw, the Diamondbacks and Team Boras will be disappointed … Phil Nevin is closer than Adam Eaton; both will begin rehab stints in the next couple weeks … Laynce Nix injured his shoulder diving for a ball in Thursday’s game. It’s not thought to be as serious as last year’s version, which kept him out nearly a month … Ambiorix Burgos returns to the bullpen for the Royals, mostly because God doesn’t think “Mientkiewicz” is enough of a challenge for me …

Many of you had great comments and questions after yesterday’s article. I asked Mike Groopman to put together a couple more interesting charts based on your questions. I think they’re self explanatory:

chart 1

chart 2

Remember to check in with BP Radio this week. It’s already one of the most popular podcasts in the iTunes Music Store. We’ll cover the ongoing steroids story with Howard Bryant, author of Juicing The Game, and travel with Brad Wochomurka to Detroit to hear his interviews with the biggest names in the game. I’ll be back next week.

Thank you for reading

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