Ball Busters: The lonely engineers who keep Major League Baseball honest.
Professor James Sherwood stands in a dingy little basement room on the campus of the University of Massachusetts-Lowell. The tests he runs here -- in a 4-foot-wide bulletproof plastic cube that usurps considerable loor space -- aren't as sophisticated as the work he does in his modern lab upstairs. Yes, there are the heavy computations and the strict control measures you'd expect of a mechanical engineer, but it's so much less than Sherwood could do if the powers that be would just give him a chance. All he does down here is shoot baseballs at a plank of wood.
Sherwood and Patrick Drane are director and assistant director, respectively, of the university's Baseball Research Center. They spend most of their time conducting complicated tests on the performance of college and pro baseball bats, but twice a year it's their job to certify the balls used in Major League games. The league first approached the center in 2000, hoping to quash conspiracy theories that it had intentionally produced the home run barrage of the late 1990s by juicing the balls. At the start of each season, and again just before the World Series, Sherwood and Drane receive a batch of 72 to 96 balls from the Rawlings warehouse. They strip down a dozen, layer by layer, weighing and measuring everything as they go. Then they fire two dozen more at a slab of ash, the wood used in most bats, recording their rebound speed.
To demonstrate, Drane switches on a 10-year-old Jugs pitching machine connected by PVC pipe to one side of the bulletproof cube. The machine begins to whir, and Drane drops in a ball. Rocketing through the cube at nearly 60 miles per hour, the ball slams into the concrete block that ordinarily supports the wood. _Thaaawack_. Sensors capture the speed of the ricochet. Though MLB pitches often eclipse 90 mph, league code dictates that balls in this test travel at only 58 mph and rebound with a coefficient of restitution of between 0.514 and 0.578. That translates to a speed between 29.8 and 33.5 mph.
As long as new baseballs continue to rebound within this decades-old range, fans are supposed to feel reassured that the balls have not been manipulated to make them livelier. That's part of what frustrates Sherwood, who at 54 wears the eyeglasses and carefully parted hair of an academic, and the slacks and short-sleeve polo of a gym teacher. "Their testing window is this big," he says, his hands a foot apart. "I don't know why it was ever set that wide." A ball testing at the high end could travel as much as 50 feet farther than one falling on the low end, he says. That's the difference between a lot of home runs and a whole lot of home runs.
Sherwood would love to bring the testing procedures into the modern era. Upstairs, his computerized machines can control a baseball bat with the precision of Barry Bonds. He has air cannons that can fire a ball at 180 mph. But the league doesn't like change. Sherwood estimates the MLB hasn't altered ball design since Babe Ruth played.
Sherwood says there's some evidence that firing a baseball at 58 mph may not be fast enough to accurately determine its liveliness.
"Has there actually been data on that?" Drane asks.
"Yeah," Sherwood says, "We're just going to explore looking at the higher speeds and present that to the league. Maybe they'll change their minds."
Sure they will. Right after the Cubs win the World Series.