DXMachina (dxmachina) wrote,

Less Tightly Wound...

It's the most important piece of equipment in the game. After all, if it wasn't, they wouldn't have named the game after it. Anyone who's ever played softball understands this, because there are softballs, and there are soft balls.

Now, when we were kids, we were big fans of rubber-coated baseballs. These were identical in construction to real baseballs, except that the leather cover and stitches were replaced by a tough rubber skin with the stitch pattern molded in. The reason we liked them was that they lasted forever (just ask commercial batting cages), especially when you took into account the little brook that meandered alongside our local baseball field, just a few feet behind the batting cage. We'd be constantly fishing the ball out of the brook. Real baseballs don't travel as far after they get waterlogged, nor do they last very long. Since none of us had much in the way of discretionary income back then, rubber-coated balls were the best thing ever, because they lasted a long time. Later, when I was in high school and still labored under the vague delusion that I could actually be good enough to make the team someday, those rubber-coated balls were great for pitching against the cinder-block outside wall of our garage, upon which I'd drawn the outline of a strike-zone. The rough surface tore the skin off horsehide balls pretty quickly, but the rubber-coated balls just bounced back to me with barely a scuff mark. Even later, my buddy Tom and I drew the same mystic symbol on the brick wall behind the Tootell recreation center at URI. Our dreams of major league glory were long gone by then, but it was still fun to pretend.

That was the same year I started playing softball in the grad intramural league at URI, and the rec department provided each team with two rubber-coated softballs. These were supposed to last us for the entire season, some twenty-four games. At the time, it seemed like an okay idea to me. Well, no. The rec balls turned out to be the most cheaply made balls ever. They were heavy, and a couple of innings of hitting was all that was needed to change their shapes to something non-spherical, a phenomenon exacerbated by the very stretchable rubber skin. We threw them out, and got real balls as soon as we could.

The thing is, even cheap baseballs are fairly consistent in their hardness. Maybe it's because hardballs are designed to be wound as tightly as possible to produce that characteristic hardness. Softballs are different. They are meant to be less hard than baseballs, but things get tricky on the question of how much less hard.

First off, a softball isn't all that much softer than a hardball. Even the softest will still leave a nasty bruise if a line drive hits you. But there are differences in construction that allow the balls to be marketed for different uses and levels of competition. The predominant brand, Worth, marked their balls with a colored dot to indicate how the ball was constructed. Blue dots meant "restricted flight," a ball that didn't rebound off the bat quite as hard as the "unrestricted" red dots. Most of the town leagues used blue dots to even things out a little for the non-hulking among us, while in less organized leagues (like the URI rec league), the better teams snuck in red dots to use on wide open fields (heh). The women got to use green dots, smaller and more tightly wound than a standard softball. I used to occasionally take a few swings in batting practice with a women's team I coached, just so I could tee off on those. In the nineties, when bat technology developed (and balls started being wound even more tightly) so that 150 lb shortstops could suddenly hit blue dots 300' in the air, "extra restricted" gold dots started being used in some leagues. They reminded me a lot of those old rubber eggs URI gave us.

But baseballs are supposed to be consistent, especially the higher up the ladder of competition you go. Or at least they used to be. The Colorado Rockies play in Coors Field, a stadium that is a mile above sea level. It's a bigger than average park, but the thin air at that altitude has made the place a veritable launching pad. While Colorado's hitters have benefitted greatly from playing there, their pitchers have generally turned into quivering masses of jelly just biding their time until they can declare free agency and get the hell out of Dodge Denver. Good pitchers can be reduced to tears after just a few outings at Coors. Many will attest that one of the greatest pitching feats of all time was the no-hitter Hideo Nomo threw there some years ago as a member of the Dodgers.

Recently, however, the offensive levels of Coors Field have been dialed back to about league average. How? Did they move the fences back? Nope. The Rockies are storing their official National League baseballs in a humidor. Humidifying the balls is a much subtler version of fishing the balls out of the brook. Humidified balls don't rebound off the bat as well as a dry ball. In effect, the Rockies are using restricted flight baseballs. Pitchers across the league are rejoicing, and it's helped get the Rocks off to their best start in yonks because their young pitchers aren't getting lit up all the time, which helps keep the shellshock cases down...

Of course, it helps opposing pitchers, too, as it did last night when Brad Penny threw the best game by a Dodger starter this year to shut the Rocks out, 3-0. This allowed the Dodgers to crawl into a first place tie with the DBacks, the first time they've been there in more than a year. Penny's had some rough, not to mention short, outings of late, but last night he was brilliant, going 8 1/3, the first Dodger starter to make it into the ninth this year.

The Rockies made a trade before the game, picking up #2 WFAN anathema Kaz Matsui from the Mets for Eli Marrero. Matsui has been awful for the Mets since coming over from Japan, and I have no idea why the Rockies would want him. Well, unless the management, who are very concerned about player character, got confused about the difference between a player of good character, and a player who IS a character.
Tags: baseball

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