Mathematical comparisons. Rates of compression. Coefficients of restitution. Come again? Isn't this baseball, the national pastime, in which the only thing that matters is, as they say, what goes on between the white lines? So, if you really want to know whether the American and National Leagues are playing with a souped-up, fuel-injected, turbocharged spheroid, just ask the man who drives one.
Among the men on the field and in the dugout, rumors of a lively ball have generated a lively, if one-sided, debate. According to a SPORTS ILLUSTRATED survey of those players, coaches and managers who have definite opinions on the ball, two-thirds agree that the Rawlings model is the liveliest in years. A few scientific sorts, like White Sox Outfielder Richie Zisk, Met Pitcher Tom Seaver and Seattle Coach Don Bryant, have proved it to their own satisfaction by comparing the bounces of old and new rubber cores. But for everyone else, the proof is in the pounding.
Seattle's Joe Lis knows the ball is livelier "because my high hoppers are hopping higher." Milwaukee's Mike Hegan found out the hard way—by being beaned. "The ball rolled all the way to the first-base coach's box," he says. "Last year it would have gone only halfway down the line." California Coach Jimmy Reese, who has been in baseball for more than 60 of his 71 years, learned in more agreeable fashion. Reese is hitting fungoes like a 60-year-old kid again, and he modestly admits, "I've had to ease up or move back farther so that I wouldn't hit the balls over the fence. I've never seen it this lively in all my years." And Jimmy, we haven't seen you any livelier, either.
The pitchers, of course, consider the peppier ball to be part of a never-ending conspiracy to rob them of their manhood. "Everything that has changed in baseball in the last 10 years has been done to help the hitters," grouses Boston's Ferguson Jenkins. "They've lowered the mound, changed the strike zone and built new stadiums with artificial turf. Now we've got this new ball. I'll bet anyone right now there will be 1,000 more home runs this year because of it."
June 12, 1977
What else should Jenkins expect, considering some of the unusual properties his colleagues attribute to the '77 balls? Even though he pitched a no-hitter last month, Kansas City's Jim Colborn says there is rabbit food inside every ball. San Diego's Rollie Fingers claims "There's a Titleist golf ball in the thing." Cincinnati's Gary Nolan tells how he "picked one up the other day and the darn thing jumped right out of my hand."
However, it's the ball's tendency to jump over the fence that has caught the attention of most pitchers. "The hitters are not that much better, and the pitchers are not that much worse," says Detroit's John Hiller. "Too many guys are taking swings that aren't good and hitting the ball hard," says the White Sox' Lerrin LaGrow. Chicago Pitching Coach Stan Williams stands by his man, saying, "Last year's balls had one stage. This year's are like three-stage rockets. Voop, voop, voop!" And San Francisco's John Montefusco knows just how dangerous one of those guided voops can be. "The ball comes off the bat so much quicker a pitcher could get killed," he says.
"You can't blame the hitters," says Boston's Fred Lynn. "The fans demand more action. When guys like Bob Gibson and Sandy Koufax were pitching one-and two-hitters back in the '60s, the people complained that it was boring."
As Lynn's comment suggests, hitters have very little sympathy for pitchers. To many of them, the controversy about the ball is a big—and satisfying—joke. "The players are livelier," says Ralph Garr of the White Sox. "It's the same ball, but it's different money," reasons Garr's teammate Oscar Gamble. "They are paying us good to hit harder." "Maybe the bats are livelier," says Pittsburgh's Willie Stargell. "Has anyone thought of looking at the bats?" Cincinnati's George Foster takes a metaphysical approach, declaring "There is no life in a baseball. It is inorganic. It doesn't breathe and it has no soul." Finally, his put-on complete, even Foster admits "Yeah, it's livelier."
Other notable hitters do not think so. Montreal's Tony Perez sees no difference between the '76 and '77 balls, and until recently, Kansas City's Al Cowens—whose average is up 40 points this season—did not know the ball manufacturer had been changed from Spalding to Rawlings. "When you hit it good it goes," says Dave Parker of Pittsburgh. "If you don't, it's not going anywhere, nohow."
There is another group of baseball men who disagree on whether the ball is livelier, but who agree that it is better—better to hit and to pitch. They believe the ball is wound tighter, feels smaller, lasts longer and has higher seams. "Last year's batch was the worst I've ever seen," says Texas Manager Frank Lucchesi. Seattle Coach Wes Stock can recognize the difference when he pitches batting practice. "When I was at Oakland last year, I noticed the balls would get all mushy and soft and the covers would come loose," he says. "Gene Tenace and Joe Rudi would tell me to quit throwing those mushmelons. This year the balls are harder, tighter." "Better made." concludes St. Louis' Lou Brock.
Pitchers Rudy May of Baltimore, Doug Bird of Kansas City and Frank Tanana of California say they prefer pitching with the new ball, despite the obvious risks. "I have less trouble getting a good grip," says May. "You can throw it harder," says Bird. Tanana contends, "It's a good ball to throw because it has higher seams and feels smaller. If you make a good pitch, you are going to get the batter out, but your mistakes are going to be hit a lot farther. So you have to limit your mistakes and be sharper."
There should be some consolation for pitchers in the fact that all clubs have equal access to the spirited spheroids. A team may have to pitch with them in one half of the inning, but it gets to swing at them in the other half. Except, it seems, when the team is Milwaukee and the pitcher is Jim Slaton. "Yeah, it's a livelier ball," he says, "but only when I'm pitching."