In virtually every sport, there are critical pieces of equipment that become the both a foundation of performance but also the center of controversy. Quite often those are tools used solely by one individual. Like bicycles in the grand tours or triathlons – there’s a constant hunt for lighter and more aerodynamic, which is why there’s rules in place to limit any advantage. The same goes with running shoes, or race cars, golf clubs, tennis rackets, bobsleds – pretty much any place where an athlete can buy an edge through new technology.
But things get more interesting when it’s a tool that used by everyone, not just one person or one team. The most obvious example is a ball, a common artifact used in countless team sports. And deflategate notwithstanding, there’s no sport more obsessed with its playing sphere than baseball, where fans share QAnon styled conspiracy theories about its constitution and scientists study its chemistry. As long as there’s been people playing baseball, there’s been fans screaming that somehow the ball is either alive or dead or something that makes it go further or shorter, depending on the year. Such is genesis of terms like the dead-ball era, the jackrabbit ball, and the juiced ball theory. All of this typically is driven by how many home runs are hit in a year and how lively a ball flies off the bat, especially in comparison to years prior.
And now, we are in the midst of yet another live baseball controversy, as Major League Baseball has just announced it will alter its baseballs for the upcoming season by slightly reducing weight through minor alterations to the stitching. MLB has said this comes through tighter quality control of manufacturing, which they control because they largely own Rawlings, who makes the baseballs. According to MLB, this won’t change the size or feel of the ball, but it may result in a fly ball traveling less by a foot or two, which could mean the difference between a grand slam and an out. This comes after a string of seasons with the most overall homeruns in history, where star pitchers have accused the league of intentionally spring loading the baseball. On top of that, several more teams will now store baseballs in humidifiers, which should keep them from drying out and flying farther. So, in 2021, assuming we have baseball, you may see a few less home runs and a bit less complaining, at least from the pitchers.
Much of this controversy comes not about whether the baseballs were more live and went further because of it. It was the intentionality of the affair. In other words, it’s the insinuation that Major League Baseball officials are secretly altering the ball to get more home runs, making the game more interesting to most non-baseball purists – which is most people. Baseball of course denies the allegation, attributing any inconsistencies to the outsourcing of production, like they’re the Gap mass producing skinny jeans. Whether you believe the Commissioner’s office likely depends on your level of cynicism and your distrust of institutions. Or maybe it’s because baseball fans love to complain about pretty much everything, which is why any rule change is largely regarded as an act of war.
So now, the League’s acknowledgment of a course correction accomplishes two things. First, it affirms every baseball conspiracist’s belief that the game is rigged all along, and no record should every count for anything if it happened after 1970. Second, it might mean fewer home runs, which means fewer exhilarating moments in a sport that can rival marathon running for excitement. And for the record, I happen to love watching marathons.
I do understand why the League wants to keep its baseballs in order. And more importantly, make sure that people believe they’re keeping it kosher. That said, I also think that sports fans should realize that times change, which include sports and the athletes that play them. A baseball player of today is way different than one of the 1920’s – even without steroids. They train different, eat different, use more science, and so on. So trying to normalize every part of a game that lives in a constant state of evolution seems, well, impossible. Which is why I don’t really care too much if the ball is live, dead, or somewhere in-between. But I will care if every fly ball dies on the warning track.
That said, I don’t get to wound up about the nuance of baseball purity and technology. Now if you want to talk about bike wheels in the Ironman triathlon, I do have strong thoughts.
Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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