URI reseachers say hitters today getting some help

Thursday, October 26th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Journal Staff Writer

You watched Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa pound baseballs out of the park with astonishing ease.

You wondered how two players, in one season, could hit more home runs than any slugger in the history of the game, and how less formidable players could hit the ball such great distances.

Well, a group of forensic researchers at the University of Rhode Island has found at least one of the reasons for the extraordinary feats of power hitting.

"We can conclude, with some reasonable degree of scientific certainty, that there have been physical changes in the baseball over the years," said Dennis Hilliard, one of the researchers.

In other words, today's baseballs may be juiced.

After a five-month study, the team of researchers concluded that today's baseballs bounce higher and contain materials that could make them livelier than they were nearly 40 years ago.

The team of URI chemists, engineers and textile experts compared the cores of baseballs made in 1963, 1970 and 1989 with newer balls from 1995 and 2000.

They concluded that the "windings" in the older balls were made almost entirely of wool. But the newer balls contain more synthetic material and more rubber at their core, which could make them travel greater distances.

Also, the core of the newer balls bounced on average about 20 inches higher than that of the older balls, according to the study.

For a power hitter, that additional elasticity means that on the field the new balls could travel 30 to 35 feet farther -- or the difference between an off-the-wall double and a home run, said Hilliard, who heads the URI crime lab.

"Whether [the manufacturers] are doing it on purpose or not, we don't know," Hilliard said. "But something has changed with the baseball in the past 37 years. And we think the ball has played a role in the number of home runs."

Rawlings Sporting Goods Co., the maker of Major League baseballs, denies that today's baseballs are juiced, or made to be livelier than they were in the days of Roger Maris, who in 1961 held the record for most home runs in a single season (61) until McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals and Sosa of the Chicago Cubs smashed it in 1998. That year, McGwire hit 70 and Sosa hit 66. Elizabeth Daus, Rawlings's director of advertising and promotions, said she was not aware of the specific findings of the URI study. But she said that officials from Major League baseball and company officials conducted their own study at the Rawlings plant in Costa Rica, showing that baseballs are consistent. Rawlings has made Major League baseballs since 1977.

"The balls have not changed and they meet the Major League standards," Daus said.

The URI study started as a light-hearted exercise. Hilliard, Linda Welters, Christopher Brown, and Otto Gregory worked on their own time with no financing to conduct the experiments. But the results, the scientists say, are credible.

The work began in mid-May when WSKO (790-AM) producers for Sportradio the Score contacted the URI researchers, asking whether they would help them conduct an experiment.

"We all kind of thought the balls were more lively," said John Crowe, the executive producer of the Score. "We came up with the goofy idea to do the test ourselves."

Listeners donated the balls, which included a foul ball from a 1970 game between the Twins and the Red Sox at Fenway Park. The 1963 ball is believed to have come from the bat of Chuck Schilling, a Red Sox second baseman during the '60s.

During a live broadcast at the Quaker Tool Co. in North Kingstown, the researchers tested the balls for bounce, and pulled them apart to test their cores. But the serious analysis took place back in a URI laboratory, where chemists and textile experts analyzed the fibers of the "windings" and the rubber-like material at the core, or the "pill." Although some of the coverings of the older balls had faded with age, the insides were well-preserved and yielded credible scientific evidence.

The researchers admit there are other factors that could contribute to today's historic hitting. Smaller stadiums, stronger hitters, and weaker pitching are all variables you can't test in a laboratory.

The researchers insist their work is not meant to debunk the accomplishments of today's hitters. They were just trying to solve a "scientific puzzle about why the balls were flying out of the park," Hilliard said.

"I still think they are heroes," said Hilliard of Sosa and McGwire, "regardless of whether their balls are a little more juiced." Back to: RI News Printer-Friendly Version
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