Coming soon: A humidor near you?
MLB considers making Coors Field cooler mandatory
Posted: Thursday February 15, 2007 12:48PM; Updated: Thursday February 15, 2007 4:04PM
Baseballs have been abused and neglected since the beginnings of the game. There were dead balls at the turn into the 20th century, of course, then juiced balls decades later. We've had spitballs, scuffed balls, cut balls and sandpapered balls. Balls have been bounced relentlessly off rock-hard turf and bounced often off rock-hard heads. They've been subjected to wind tunnels in Minneapolis, swirling gusts in Candlestick and Jeffrey Maier in New York.
Every Major League baseball is slathered in Delaware River mud before it ever makes it to a big-league ballpark, and they're all rubbed down with dirt again before they go into a game. Then Kenny Rogers gets hold of them.
No ball in sporting history has been more beat on and beat up, massaged and messed around with than the modest ol' baseball. So Major League Baseball has taken it upon itself, following a lead by the people who play baseball in Denver, to make sure that all balls are treated equally ... at least before they land in play.
That doesn't mean they're all destined to spend their pre-showtime lives stewing in a version of Colorado's famed Coors Field cooler, the humidor that keeps the baseballs in Denver at the exact temperature and humidity recommended by the balls' makers. But that might not be too far off.
"I think," says Jimmie Lee Solomon, Major League Baseball's executive vice president for baseball operations, "that this is the wave of the future."
MLB took a first step toward achieving true baseball uniformness last week when, in calls to all 30 teams, officials confirmed that every team is now keeping the hundreds and hundreds of baseballs on hand in temperature-controlled facilities. Whether that's a storage closet next to Bobby Cox's office in Atlanta or a nook off the visitors' clubhouse in Houston doesn't really matter. "They weren't being left out on pallets in the parking lot," Joe Garagiola, Jr., another MLB vice president, assured everybody last week. Every ball that will make it into a game this year, according to Solomon, is now resting in a room (hallway, footlocker, whatever) at around 70 degrees Fahrenheit, what manufacturer Rawlings suggests.
Keeping the balls at the proper moisture -- Rawlings recommends 50 percent relative humidity -- is another matter, and MLB has not jumped into that fray yet. Many teams reported last week that they are keeping their stash of baseballs in a humidity-controlled environment, but Solomon said that not everybody is.
So does that mean that a dried-out baseball in, say, Cincinnati could be costing the Reds' pitching staff more runs than a properly regulated moist one might? Is this, at last, the answer to winning in Great American Ball Park? Or at least the solution to not giving up as many home runs?
Well ... no. Anybody who's lived through a sticky Cincinnati summer knows that a lack of humidity, in all likelihood, isn't the culprit. Clearly, the Reds need to be worrying more about how they're throwing than what they're throwing.
"We do know that the liveliness of the baseball can be sensitive to the amount of moisture in the ball," says Dr. James Sherwood, who has a PhD. in aerospace engineering from, as it turns out, the University of Cincinnati. "But ... the range of moisture content that you're going to see at the ballpark is not going to make something that was a homer yesterday not a homer today."
Sherwood is the director of the Baseball Research Center at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. He's done all sorts of work on baseball bat performance and durability, and he's done work on the effects of moisture and temperature on baseballs, too.
After dissecting and testing baseballs over many years, Sherwood has come to this rather common-sense answer: The heavier the moisture content, the heavier the ball, so the harder it is to hit it out of the park. Hotter baseballs -- it doesn't take a PhD. in aerospace engineering to figure this out -- are livelier than cold ones. As Sherwood says, the differences are hardly noticeable. In many cases, they're barely measurable, unless someone's putting a baseball in a freezer or a toaster oven, as Sherwood did for his tests.
Still, players will tell you that baseball is a game of inches, and the last thing that any team wants -- especially in a smaller park or in an environment where thin air offers less resistance (say, at altitude in Coors Field) -- is a too-warm, dried-out baseball. It's definitely the last thing a pitching staff wants.
MLB has been watching Coors Field, a kind of a natural laboratory for bizarre baseball behavior, for years. More runs were scored per game in Coors Field than anywhere else for the first eight years it was around. In 1996, before the humidor was installed, teams combined to score 15 runs a game there. Those numbers -- and a lot of losing -- prompted Colorado officials to start using the humidor in 2002, and last year, teams combined to score 10.7 runs a game, the lowest output ever in Coors, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Other stadiums -- Cincinnati's Great American Ball Park, Ameriquest Field in Arlington, Texas, and Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City -- have taken turns passing Coors in runs per game in recent years. But Coors has never dropped lower than second in any given season.
Scoring fluctuates in Denver, which has led to some groaning about the true effectiveness of the humidor. But Solomon insists that any variations in scoring in Coors these days has less to do with the baseballs and how they're stored than with those throwing the balls and swinging the bats. Baseball's front office gets weekly statistical reports on Coors Field scoring and weekly reports measuring different aspects of the balls in play.
"For people to pick on Coors Field is ludicrous," Solomon says. "We monitor Coors Field more than we do anywhere."
The pressing questions for MLB are whether what has been good for Coors Field would be good for the rest of the league, whether Coors Field is unique or whether any of it really matters at all. Whatever the case, MLB soon could come down with an order that not only must all game baseballs be stored at 70 degrees Fahrenheit (as they already are, more or less) and be manufactured in the current year (the league office said last week that year-old baseballs won't do any longer), but also that all baseballs have to be kept at the same relative humidity, too.
If that happens, the poor, mistreated baseballs in Cincinnati, finally, will become virtually the same as the cooler balls in Colorado. Until the game begins, anyway.