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This Year's Lively Baseballs Taking Place in History

August 16, 1987|WILLIAM GILDEA | Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Mark Fidrych talked to it. Ray Chapman was killed by it. Ted Williams said that the hardest thing in sports is to hit it. Umpires are instructed to keep their eye everlastingly on it. Roy Hobbs knocked the cover off it. Westbrook Pegler said he heard a rabbit's pulse beating in it.

The baseball--also known as the horsehide, the old apple, the sphere, the pill, the pea and the onion--is distinctly American and the focus of a timeless game.

It also has been a subject of great controversy this season, a small object causing a storm of debate and speculation. Has the baseball somehow been changed--made livelier, "juiced up"?

Or last week's issue: Was the baseball filed, scuffed or marked by Minnesota Twins pitcher Joe Niekro? The umpires said it was--and searched Niekro in front of thousands of people last week at Anaheim Stadium.

An emery board subsequently popped out of Niekro's back pocket, prompting the umpires to give Niekro the thumb and send six scuffed balls to American League headquarters, where league President Bobby Brown suspended the 42-year-old Niekro for 10 days.

Niekro pleaded not guilty, of course, noting he'd kept a nail file and sandpaper in his back pocket for most of his 21-year career.

"Being a knuckleball pitcher, I sometimes have to file my nails between innings," he said, adding that he'd always carried the emery board and nail file in his pocket to the mound.

"I guess I can't do it anymore," he said. The last pitcher to be suspended was Rick Honeycutt in 1980, when umpires found him using a thumbtack to scuff baseballs.

And then Monday night, Kevin Gross of the Philadelphia Phillies was ejected when umpires allegedly found sandpaper in his glove. On Tuesday, he was suspended for 10 days by the National League.

It's no wonder pitchers are going to their wits and files. Suddenly this year, inexplicably, baseballs are flying out of stadiums at a record rate: 2,513 home runs were hit in the major leagues by the all-star break, compared with only 2,059 last season. A startling upswing.

Oakland rookie Mark McGwire (only 23 home runs in the minors last season) was threatening to surpass Roger Maris's record of 61 home runs in a season before tailing off after the All-Star break. The Milwaukee Brewers' home-run production has jumped 50 percent over last year. Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, once a pitcher's park, has become a homer dome without a roof since a new scoreboard changed the wind currents in the stadium.

No proof has been uncovered that it's livelier. But the speculation is understandable. The baseball is regarded as sacredly as anything in sports. The mere thought it could have been altered can unsettle people, and not just the game's purists. Who, after all, has the right to tamper with a baseball?

Hitters claim some pitchers mess with the ball all the time--and they can get into trouble for it. They've scuffed it with sandpaper (the emery ball), smoothed parts with talcum or paraffin (the shine ball), and they've spit on it and cut the cover--anything for an advantage.

Umpires are always inspecting the ball to keep it in its purest state; like bathing a baby in oil, umpires before games immerse each baseball in Lena Blackburne Baseball Rubbing Mud from a secret location in the Delaware River.

The baseball is fixed in American culture: Civil War soldiers played with a kind of baseball; King George V autographed one and gave it to Woodrow Wilson. In the novel and film, "It Happens Every Spring," college professor Vernon Simpson discovers a miracle repellent that, when applied to a baseball, causes the ball to avoid contact with wood. The professor becomes a much-needed winning pitcher for the Browns.

What do you do with a baseball you catch at the park? You keep it. Catch a loose basketball and you throw it back. You duck from a hockey puck. But a baseball caught can be a treasure; fans risk physical well-being going for foul balls, and especially fine catches at Baltimore's Memorial Stadium are noted on the public address system: "Give that fan a contract."

What ball makes the sound of a baseball? In "The Boys of Summer," Roger Kahn tells of being asked as a young sportswriter to stand in at the plate against Dodgers pitcher Clem Labine.

"Although Labine was not regarded as very fast and was complaining about his arm, the ball exploded with a sibilant whoosh, edged by a buzzing as of hornets. I had never heard a thrown ball make that sound before. It seemed to accelerate as it came closer, an impossibly fast pitch that made the noises of hornets and snakes."

Or Thomas Wolfe: ". . . . In the memory of almost every one of us, is there anything that can evoke spring--the first fine days of April--better than the sound of the ball smacking into the pocket of the big mitt, the sound of the bat as it hits the horsehide. . . . "

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