Important business has taken me out of sunny California and across the country to the slightly warmer March days of Florida; baseball spring training.
I maintain an affection for spring training even though I no longer live in a winter climate where a few days of sunshine after 5 months of cold can truly be appreciated. But I spent my childhood in Florida, in a baseball haven aptly called Dodgertown, so cold climate or not baseball in spring is a necessary ritual. It gives me a reminder I haven't seen my family in a year and spring baseball is somehow both better and worse than regular season baseball, when it becomes more of a business and obviously played by the best of the best.
As a young boy, I was blessed with parents who had no issue with saving a dollar or two by letting us sneak under an outfield fence - I was also blessed with older siblings who knew just how to do that. So most of my early baseball game memories were of sneaking under the fence and throwing kumquats at my brother on the hill behind left field. It was only later that I learned the outstanding physics opportunities in baseball.
Look ma, no outfield ads, just trees! Clearly this could not be allowed to go on forever.
Baseball, being a business, had to move on and last year the Dodgers left, after 60 years and many memories, for the richer luxury boxes of a new stadium in Arizona. That makes spring training a little trickier. It meant I had to juggle family visits with a journey to the spring training home of my second favorite team, the Pirates, about 4 hours away in Bradenton.
But long drives give me a lot of time to think about the important things in life, like baseball and physics.
Many Americans (and almost all foreigners) are bored by baseball. It defies convention because it is the only game where the defense has the ball. It also has no shot clocks or timekeepers. Each team gets 27 outs and there are no ties and finishing will take as long as it takes. It has its own history that parallels the country's. For example, paraphrasing George Will in "Men At Work", on the day in June of 1876 when General George Custer made his dumbest, and last, mistake at Little Big Horn in Montana, the Chicago White Stockings baseball club beat the Cincinnati Red Stockings; both teams wore knickers and will do so again this June.
In 1876 the baseballs in use had a size of 9-9.25 inches in circumference and weighed 5-5.25 ounces. They will do so again this June (1). Not many cultural traditions can claim that kind of heritage.
When people think of baseball, they often think of home runs, which is a blessing to marketing people and a curse to purists. Prior to 1920, home runs were something of a rarity. A stadium might have a center field over 500 feet, for example, and balls were used until they began to unravel.
But people liked them so the talk among conspiratorialists has always been that baseball teams were selling out the game for offense. In 1920 it was the ball, in the 1950s it was bats, in 1968 it was the mound (though they have something there, as physics will show us later) and the ball and bats came up a few more times before people decided it was steroids in the last decade.
Balls are not just required to have size and weight controls, they also have performance controls. That control is called the Coefficient of Restitution. The coefficient of restitution says that if they fire any random ball at 85 feet per second into a piece of wood at a distance of 8 feet, the rebound must be 54.6% of the initial velocity. Because manufacturing is not that precise, there is an allowed deviation of +/- 3.2 percent.
If the ball's size and weight are controlled, and bats are controlled, what else can be 'juiced', besides maybe the players? The seams, it is said. While balls have not changed much since 1876 (they changed from horsehide to cowhide in 1975) the seams might, and seams are responsible for drag.
Baseballs have been manufactured by Rawlings in places as diverse as the USA, Taiwan and Haiti - what they all have in common are 216 red cotton stitches. There was a power boom in 1987, 37 percent more than 1984. One of the reasons were 'happy Haitians.' Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier was one of countless petty tyrants who perpetually seem to run the vast majority of the world's countries and in 1986, the Haitian people had finally had enough. These rejuvenated people were winding the ball tighter inside, it was said, or making the seams tighter (or both) and it made the ball more lively.
Tough to say. Home runs went down in the next two years and it so happened the people of Haiti were again pretty miserable during that time. That's the problem with correlation/causation reasoning.
In the late 1990s home runs surged again and this time the implication is that it was steroids but much of that reasoning was correlation/causation too. Most interesting is that we have some common metrics. In 1987, for example, during a huge surge in homeruns, a team (Oakland Athletics) that we know had two steroid users - Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco - had a team home run performance about the same as the 1927 Yankees and much less the 1961 Yankees - but nowhere near the individual totals of Ruth and Gehrig or Maris and Mantle. Supposedly people who played in a more pure era.
In other words, lots of things can account for home runs; more pitchers meaning lower quality, higher altitudes of some stadiums, steroids or even happy Haitians. The great thing about baseball is that it's quantifiable enough we can have those debates.
Tomorrow I'll tackle those drag coefficients and we'll figure out just how far a ball can go (like, did Mickey Mantle really hit a ball almost 600 feet?)
(1) Official Baseball Rules. 1.09. Further specifications are the cork nucleus, rubber wrapped in 121 yards of blue-grey yarn, 45 yards of white wool yarn and 150 yards of fine cotton yarn and, as I note above, a hand-stitched cover.
The Science Of Baseball: Coefficients And Happy Haitians
By Hank Campbell | March 28th 2009 09:06 AM | Print | E-mail